Tar Heels baseball closing in on Coastal Division title, rip Hokies 9-1

It’s the time of the college baseball season when teams want to be peaking, playing their best.

Or in North Carolina’s case, playing with a bit more passion, with more of an edge.

The No. 6 Tar Heels ripped Virginia Tech 9-1 Thursday in the opener of their ACC series at Boshamer Stadium and now need one more victory -- or a Duke loss at Georgia Tech later Thursday -- to clinch the Coastal Division for a second straight season. With a series sweep, UNC could claim the No. 1 overall seed in next week's ACC Championship in Durham.

Before Thursday, the Tar Heels (35-17 overall, 20-8 ACC) had dropped four of their past five games, losing twice in the ACC series to Duke and a lackluster 4-2 nonconference loss Tuesday at UNC-Wilmington.

“I challenged them a little bit,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “We needed to get back to playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. A little bit of trying to prove ourselves, which I thought we were doing after we were 7-7, right?

"It was like, ‘We’re better than this.’ Then you get to the point where you’re playing well, then you have to stop reading your press clippings, and get back to what got you to that point.”

Since the 7-7 start to the season, the Tar Heels have been streaking, winning 28 of 38 games. But there was some slippage after their three-game sweep over N.C. State in Raleigh late last month, a first for UNC.

“Sweeping State was big, but it was kind of easy to get caught up in that moment,” junior centerfielder Brandon Riley said. “We had to understand it was a good weekend but we had more business to do down the road.”

UNC won nonconference games over UNC-Asheville and Richmond, then was beaten 5-2 at Coastal Carolina. They dropped two of three against Duke, winning the third game to prevent a sweep by the Blue Devils.

“We’ve scuffled a little bit in the month of May, and that’s not the time to scuffle,” Fox said. “I love this group, and they desperately want to get back to playing the way they were, and they’re trying.”

Fox smiled, saying, “But don’t try too hard. There’s a fine line in baseball. You have to try and walk that line and stay relaxed. I think this (win) helped us.”

The Tar Heels had a solid performance against the Hokies (21-31, 8-20), who will not qualify for the ACC Championship. Dodging some raindrops, they got seven shutout innings from righthander Cooper Criswell, a booming homer and four RBIs from sophomore catcher Brandon Martorano and a couple of defensive gems from shortstop Ike Freeman.

Martorano blasted a Joey Sullivan pitch deep to left field for the two-run homer in the fourth — his eighth of the season — for a 4-0 lead. He had two-out, RBI-singles in the second and seventh innings.

Criswell (4-2), a 6-foot-6 junior, pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the second and kept throwing strikes in a quality start. He allowed eight hits and struck out six in seven shutout innings.

Freeman made a sparkling stop of a hard grounder in the fourth, scrambling to his feet to throw out VT’s Nick Menken. Later in the inning, after VT’s Stevie Magnum doubled to deep center, Freeman threw out Jack Owens at the plate for the third out.

“I think today was a huge step in the right direction,” said Riley, who had two hits and extended his hitting streak to a career-high 10 games. “Everyone contributed. Everyone put good at-bats together."

“We focused this last week on really locking up our defense again. It hasn’t been shaky but it hasn’t been where we wanted it to be. Today was the perfect culmination of having pitching, defense and hitting come together. And that’s what we’ve needed.”

The game Thursday was to have had a 6 p.m. start but was moved up to 1 p.m. because of the threat of inclement weather. There was some rain, but not enough to delay the game.

UNC officials said Friday's game also would have a 1 p.m. start at Boshamer Stadium.