Maybe tonight was the night that NC State collectively said, “Enough is enough.” After a 25-1 start to the season, State struggled to just a 14-14 mark over its last 28 games before pounding “not our rival” UNC 11-2 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill Friday night. The Pack’s 40th win of the season sets up a rubber match with the Tar Heels Saturday afternoon (4:30 first pitch). Hosting a regional may well be on the line in the series and regular season finale for both schools.
Unlike Thursday night, when they squandered scoring opportunities and coughed up the lead with defensive miscues, the Pack 9 were clutch at the plate while the Heels kicked the ball around. Jonny Butler and Will Wilson started the game with back-to-back singles, but Evan Edwards and Patrick Bailey followed with back-to-back strikeouts. Tyler McDonough provided the clutch, singling on a two-strike offering to start the scoring and change the momentum of the series, and the Heels provided the kicking it around, as right fielder Brandon Marterane bobbled the base hit and then threw wildly to no one in particular, allowing Wilson to score all the way from first. Brad Debo followed with another clutch two-out hit to plate McDonough, who had advanced into scoring position on the throwing error, and the Pack led 3-0.
Butler and Wilson notched four hits apiece (though one of Wilson’s two doubles was a generously scored hit on a dropped pop up by first baseman Michael Busch). The two were in the middle of State’s second three-run rally, as Wilson’s legit double plated a run in the frame and Butler and Wilson both scored on Edwards’ two-run single. The three-run fourth put State up 6-0.
J.T. Jarrett, who had a couple of hits in five trips to the dish, doubled home a run to make it 7-0 in the fifth before State’s third three-run frame made it 10-1 in the top of the sixth. Wilson, a solo shot, and McDonough, a two-run blast, accounted for the third three-run rally with the long ball. In addition to combining for eight hits, Butler and Wilson, the Pack’s one-and-two hitters, each scored three runs. That’s setting the table. Jarrett and McDonough’s two-hit games gave State four players with multiple hits, and Edwards reached three times (a hit and two walks).
Reid Johnston (6-1) was far from dominant on the bump for the Pack, allowing eight hits and fanning just one in 5.1 innings. However, the sophomore righty yielded just one run and, despite the hits, rarely gave up hard contact. The lone extra base hit he allowed was a towering fly to right field that Lawson McArthur played into a triple (and resulted in the lone run charged to Johnston).
Despite the huge lead, Elliott Avent hooked Johnston after just 79 pitches, turning to Evan Justice, the team’s most consistent lefty out of the pen, in a lopsided game. Justice worked 2.1 innings and was charged with a run (an inherited runner Baker Nelson walked in). He threw 44 pitches, so he won’t be available Saturday. After shakily making it out of the 8th, Nelson fanned the side in the ninth to put an exclamation point on State’s blowout win.
UNC’s previously unbeaten Austin Bergner (5-1) was pounded for eight hits and six runs (four earned) in just 3.1 innings. Heel hurlers fanned 11 Pack batters but surrendered 14 hits and seven bases on balls.
In addition to regional hosting implications, Saturday’s rubber match will go a long way in deciding the pecking order for the ACC tournament. A win should assure that State is a top four seed and thus a #1 seed in its pod, which is a decided advantage as the #1 seed owns the tiebreaker should no team go 2-0 in pool play.
What started out as a historic season could still end that way for the Pack 9. After a low point, gut-wrenching loss in the opener, State literally came out swinging against Carolina and would suddenly seem to have momentum and confidence at the right time. I might even try to watch the finale without lacing all ten fingers over my eyes.