Duke’s Matuella shines briefly, but UNC rallies

In a showdown of two of the most heralded pitching staffs in the ACC, it has been advantage Tar Heels so far this weekend.

Freshman right-hander J.B. Bukauskas pitched six shutout innings, striking out eight, to lead North Carolina to a 6-2 victory against visiting Duke on Saturday.

Freshman third baseman Logan Warmoth paced UNC (10-3, 2-0) with three hits, including a two-out single that capped a three-run rally in the fourth inning.

One day earlier, the Tar Heels, ranked as high as 11th nationally, posted an 8-1 win against the Blue Devils (10-3, 0-2) behind 12 strikeouts from sophomore right-hander Zac Gallen. The three-game series wraps up at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Saturday’s anticipated pitchers’ duel between Bukauskas (2-1) and Michael Matuella lived up to expectations, if only briefly.

Matuella, a hard-throwing 6-foot-6 junior, is projected to be one of the top picks this year. But after a sterling performance in a season-opening 7-1 victory at California, tightness in his forearm caused him to miss a start and then labor under tight pitch limits during his past two outings.

Against the Tar Heels, Matuella threw three shutout innings, allowing one hit and a walk in 39 pitches. He hit 94 mph on the Boshamer Stadium radar gun before coach Chris Pollard called it a day for him.

“(We’re) building up his pitch count,” Pollard said. “We’ll talk to him tomorrow, and if he says he’s OK after today, he’ll likely go 60 to 80 pitches the next time. And we’ll build from there.”

After holding the Tar Heels in check, Matuella wanted more.

“It’s the best I’ve felt in a few weeks,” said Matuella, who said his arm never came around during the week after throwing six shutout innings against California on Feb. 13. “Most important, everything felt smooth. I was pushing to go more than 40 pitches today.

“Hopefully a lot more next time. … I feel like we’re over the hump and can look forward to getting back to baseball.”

Bukauskas, like Matuella a Northern Virginia product, more than held up his end of the duel against a high-profile opponent. He retired 12 in a row during one stretch, inducing a double play grounder to get out of a bases-loaded jam in the second. He also stranded two runners in the sixth.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, knowing what you’re going up against,” he said of Matuella, although he didn’t know the Duke pitcher during their high school days.

“I was too young,” he said. “But obviously I know now who he is and what he can do.”

The biggest jam Bukauskas faced came in the second inning, when Duke loaded the bases on a walk and singles by Peter Zyla and Justin Bellinger. But the threat ended when Kenny Koplove bounced into a 6-4-3 double play.

“I’m hoping for that right there, a double play with the bases loaded,” Bukauskas said. “It was a fastball. I just tried to get it in on him.”

“It’s hard to imagine J.B. is supposed to be a high school senior,” UNC coach Mike Fox said, “and he’s out there starting an ACC game. He’s got a great demeanor as well as having a great arm. He doesn’t let anything faze him.”

With Matuella out of the game, UNC quickly took advantage in the fourth inning. The Tar Heels pounced on his successor, freshman lefty Mitch Stallings (2-2), who surrendered a leadoff double down the left-field line to Landon Lassiter and an RBI triple by Tyler Ramirez into the right-field corner.

The Tar Heels picked up a second run when Adrian Chacon lofted a sacrifice fly to left. Brian Miller kept the inning alive with a two-out single to center, moved up on an error on a botched pickoff attempt and scored on Warmoth’s single to left.

The Tar Heels added two runs in the seventh off Conner Stevens on Zack Gahagan’s RBI triple off the wall in left center and Miller’s infield single.

Duke finally broke through in the eighth on Mike Rosenfeld’s two-out, two-run double off Trevor Kelley, the third of five UNC pitchers. UNC made it 6-2 in the eighth when Alex Raburn was hit by a pitch from Luke Whitten, the fifth Duke pitcher, with the bases loaded.