By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Carolina’s margin for error is still small but the path to a regional title became more realistic Sunday afternoon.
Needing three victories to win the Chapel Hill Regional, the Tar Heels held off a ninth-inning Georgia rally to eliminate the Bulldogs with a 6–5 victory at Boshamer Stadium and take the first step.
After Chaney Rogers’ three-run homer cut UNC’s lead to one in the bottom of the ninth, Carolina center fielder Vance Honeycutt made an outstanding play to rob Josh McCallister of a game-tying home run. Reliever Caden O’Brien came in to strike out Corey Collins looking to get the final out and his fifth save but first since March 20.
“It’s something that he’s doing pretty regularly now,” said Bryant Gaines, who took over coaching duties for suspended head coach Scott Forbes, of Honeycutt. “It’s something we’ve seen him do ever since the beginning of the fall. And for him to make a play like that speaks to what type of player he is and how hard he plays. I thought the ball was out of ballpark, personally. And to go back and get it takes all the momentum out of Georgia’s dugout and puts it right back in Carolina’s dugout, and it was a huge swing.”
Carolina is trying to win a regional title out of the losers bracket for the first time in 10 tries since the current format was first used in 1999.
UNC (40–20) has to beat VCU (42–18) in 6 p.m. games Sunday (ACC Network) and Monday to advance to a Super Regional and could host if the Tar Heels pull that off. The Chapel Hill Regional is matched with the Stillwater Regional, and Oklahoma State, that region’s No. 1 seed, is also battling through the losers bracket.
The more-rested Rams have won 17 consecutive games, including Saturday night’s 4–3 win over Carolina. Right-hander Connor Ollio (1–1, 5.09 ERA) will start Sunday night’s game for UNC.
“Our approach was that we have one game to play and do what we can do. We need to do win one game and that’s what we did,” Gaines said. “We weren’t thinking at all about the second game because if you think about the second game you don’t maximize your opportunities in the first. We’ll see how it goes from here. But at the end of the day, we would probably be pitching by committee.”
With Forbes serving a two-game suspension and watching the game from home, UNC forged ahead as seven UNC pitchers combined to scatter 11 hits as Georgia stranded 12 runners.
Johnny Castagnozzi’s two-out RBI single in the second gave UNC its first lead since Friday after Alberto Osuna reached on an error and Tomas Frick (top photo) walked.
Mikey Madej’s bases-loaded, two-out single in the third scored two runs and a third run came in on a wild pitch from reliever Jaden Woods.
Georgia (36–23) scratched out a run in the third on Rogers’ two-out RBI single but UNC repeatedly got big outs to leave Bulldogs stranded on base.
Georgia left two runners on base in the first, second, third and fifth innings. In the latter, Gage Gillian inherited a one-out, two-on jam but induced two ground balls to escape with no damage.
Frick made it 5–1 with a leadoff homer to right field in the sixth inning, but Georgia responded with Cory Acton’s RBI double down the right-field line in the bottom of the inning. Closer Davis Palermo limited the damage with an inning-ending strikeout.
Madej beat out a run-scoring infield single in the sixth to push UNC’s lead to 6–2.
Georgia appeared to have a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. But Connor Tate’s drive off the left-center field wall was ruled a ground-rule double after a replay review. Rogers followed with a three-run home run to left field.
UNC 6, Georgia 5
Chapel Hill Regional
North Carolina 15, Hofstra 4
VCU 8, Georgia 1
Georgia 24, No. 4 Hofstra 1; Hofstra eliminated
VCU 4, North Carolina 3
North Carolina 6, No. 2 Georgia 5; Georgia eliminated
North Carolina 19, VCU 8
No. 1 North Carolina (41–20) vs. No. 3 VCU (42–19), 6 p.m., TV TBA
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications