Tar Heels settle down for win over Canisius
Before Friday night’s NCAA Tournament opener against Canisius, North Carolina coach Mike Fox wrote “Be aggressive tonight” on the back of his lineup card.
Then UNC ended four innings with outs on the basepaths, including two straight innings when runners were thrown out at the plate.
“I should have written, ‘Don’t be aggressive,'” joked Fox, who also coaches third base.
The Tar Heels, playing their first NCAA Tournament game as the No. 1 overall seed, weren’t as sharp as usual, and starter Benton Moss continued to struggle.
But UNC made the plays it needed, and the bullpen extended its streak to 27.1 consecutive scoreless innings in a 6-3 win over the fourth-seeded Golden Griffins at Boshamer Stadium.
The Tar Heels won their 14th straight tournament opener and will face No. 3 Towson in a winner’s bracket game today (6:05 p.m., ESPN3.com).
“I think our team was a little nervous — maybe not so much nervous, I guess, but just nerves and jittery,” UNC junior Brian Holberton said. “You could feel it in the dugout. Once we got a few runs, (we) settled down a little bit. I think we’ll be fine from here on out.”
Making its first appearance in the tournament, Canisius (42-16) trailed 4-3 and had the bases loaded with one out in the eighth inning when Thornton struck out the next two hitters.
The Griffs would leave the bases loaded three times in the game — all on strikeouts looking — and stranded 14 runners overall, including 10 in scoring position.
“A pitch here, an at-bat there, a play there, a call there, and maybe we’re talking about a different ballgame,” Canisius coach Mike McRae said.
The Tar Heels (53-8) have outscored opponents by 139 runs in the first three innings and opened Friday with a three-run first to grab the lead on an RBI double by Cody Stubbs and a two-run double by Holberton.
UNC added a run in the second on an RBI single by Landon Lassiter, though Lassiter was later thrown out at home to end the inning. Mike Zolk was thrown out at home in the next inning trying to score on a single, Lassiter was doubled off first base in the fourth and Chaz Frank, who went 3-for-5, was caught stealing in the sixth.
Still, the Tar Heels had hits in every inning and provided enough offense against Garrett Cortright (11-4), who is tied for eighth nationally in wins.
While Cortright pitched into the eighth, Moss was pulled after 4.1 innings. UNC’s No. 2 starter allowed 11 of the 24 batters he faced to reach base and was charged with all three runs. In his last three starts, the sophomore has allowed 12 runs and 22 hits in 15.1 innings.
“Benton didn’t look comfortable right out of the gate, and I’m not quite sure why,” Fox said. “He couldn’t locate really any pitch there for a while and (was) getting behind guys.”
But the bullpen made sure UNC would hold the lead. Reliever Chris McCue (7-1) allowed two hits in 2.2 innings, and Thornton — who pitched 6.2 hitless innings in last week’s 18-inning win over N.C. State — got the two-inning save.
“There’s definitely more pressure in the regionals and you have to bear down and focus a little bit more, but it’s fun to have pressure,” Thornton said.
Next up, UNC will start ACC pitcher of the year Kent Emanuel (10-3, 2.11) against sentimental favorite Towson. The Tigers, who have a team earned run average of 5.13, will pitch righthander Brandon Gonnella (4-4, 5.22).
Towson administrators announced in March that the baseball program would be eliminated because of financial concerns, but it was given a two-year reprieve in April when the Maryland state government provided additional money.
The Tigers (30-28) beat No. 2 Florida Atlantic 7-2 on Friday afternoon. Canisius will face FAU (39-21) in an elimination game today at 1:05 p.m.