By R.L. Bynum
Could Will Stewart provide the extra factor that propels North Carolina to a decent run in the NCAA baseball tournament?
Stewart, a freshman who had been out since March 14 because of a hamate injury, went 2-for-3 and drove in three runs, Brett Centracchio went 3-for-4 and Danny Serretti was 2-for-5 with a two-run home run as the Tar Heels opened Lubbock Regional play with a 5–4 victory over UCLA on Friday night in Lubbock, Texas.
That offensive punch combined with solid pitching from Carolina ace Austin Love to get the Tar Heels off to an impressive start and at least one NCAA tournament win for a 26th consecutive season dating back to 1982.
UNC (28–25) advanced to a winners-bracket game at 9 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2 against No. 1 regional seed and No. 8 overall seed Texas Tech (37–15), which knocked off Army 6–3 on Friday afternoon. UCLA (35–19) meets Army (28–24) in an elimination game at 3 p.m. on ESPN2.
“That is a team win, and that’s what I’m proud of. A lot of guys contributed,” said first-year UNC coach Scott Forbes, who is glad he has until tonight to decide who to start on the mound against the Red Raiders. Possibilities are Connor Ollio and Gage Gillian.
Love (10–4), above, struck out nine and gave up six hits and three runs in 6⅔ innings. The bullpen held on with multiple relievers getting big outs. Gillian pitched a scoreless ninth inning with two strikeouts to get his fifth save of the season.
Love effectively mixed in his changeup, which he has been doing more recently.
“Yeah, it was big. I felt like it was more big early in the counts for me,” said Love, who has 129 strikeouts this season, second only to the 133 by Andrew Miller in 2006. “And then, late in the counts, I would either use a fastball or go back to my slider, which has been so good lately. So, it was definitely good to have that pitch back and able to get ahead of hitters.”
Love’s nine strikeouts were the most by a UNC pitcher in an NCAA tournament game since Patrick Johnson fanned 11 against James Madison in 2011.
Serretti said that having Love on the mound makes it easy to go into a game confident that the Tar Heels are going to win.
“Austin’s the best pitcher in the country, so when he’s on the mound, we’ve just got to give him the lead and we’re gonna win the game,” Serretti said. “So, that’s pretty much what we just focused on before the game. We just want to put a couple runs up and we felt like we had a good chance to win the game.”
Matt McClain’s one-out RBI double in the first inning gave UCLA a 1–0 lead, scoring Kevin Kendall, who led off the inning with a single to center field.
After three of the first four Bruins batters reached base and Love needed 20 pitches to get out of the first inning, Love hit a more efficient groove and retired 13 consecutive batters at one point.
Centracchio evened it up when he led off the second with a double down the right-field line, moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on Stewart’s groundout. Stewart made it 3–1 on a two-run, two-out single to left field in the fourth inning after Caleb Roberts reached with a walk and Centracchio singled.
Stewart, who was the designated hitter Friday, declared himself ready about 10 days ago, so he took a lot of batting practice since then.
“This week, he got to face hitters on Monday after we had the selection show,” Forbes said. “They were all 90-plus [mph], so that helped him. He looked good. He hit a home run. We thought Will would have 100 and 150 at bats this season. He was a starter for us last year. But he kept lifting and kept working. And I just felt like, hey, you know he’s looked good and that’s just a situation where you go with your gut.”
UCLA cut it to 3–2 when Kendall led off the sixth with a double, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on Matt McLain’s sacrifice fly to center field.
Serretti, above, pushed it to 5–2 with his homer, a no-doubter to center field, with two outs and two strikes in the seventh inning. He credited Angel Zarate for working the walk ahead of the blast.
“He threw me a first-pitch fastball and I was a little behind it,” Serretti said. “So, I choked up a little bit and then he threw me another one and I was just right on it and then he happened to throw one right down the middle. I was just trying to hit it and flick it over short and it just went out, which I couldn’t believe but it was awesome.”
Kendall’s third hit of the game, a two-out RBI single in the seventh, cut UNC’s lead to 5–3 and ended Love’s evening. Left-handed reliever Caden O’Brien came in to strike out Pat Caulfield to leave two Bruins stranded on base.
Taking Love out is never an easy decision, but it worked out.
“We talk about it and we talk about these situations before they happen and you have to go, ultimately, and make the decision,” Forbes said. “And that’s why I’m thankful I was a pitching coach so long because the decision just has to be made. It’s the toughest decision a coach or manager makes, is when to make a change on the mound. But we liked that matchup better, we felt good about it and, even if they pinch-hit, we felt good about who Caden would face in that situation.”
O’Brien got into a second-and-third, one-out jam in the eighth inning, though. Nik Pry came on and threw a wild pitch that scored McClain, who led off the inning with a single, to make it 5–4. Pry struck out Mikey Perez, then left-hander Shawn Rapp came on to walk a batter before inducing a groundout to end the threat.
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North Carolina 5, UCLA 4
Lubbock Regional scores, schedule
Game 1 — No. 1 regional seed Texas Tech 6, No. 4 Army 3
Game 2 — No. 3 North Carolina 5, No. 2 UCLA 4
Game 3 — Elimination game: UCLA 13, Army 6; Army eliminated
Game 4 — Winners bracket: Texas Tech (37–15) vs. UNC (28–25), 9 p.m., ESPN2
Game 5 — UCLA (36 19) vs Loser Game 4, 3 p.m.
Game 6 — Winner Game 4 vs Winner Game 5, 7 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary) — Game 6 rematch, 5 p.m.
Photos by Elise Bressler/Texas Tech Athletics