By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — A hot pitcher can often overcome a team on an offensive roll and Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland offered the latest example Saturday. Now North Carolina is depending on a hot pitcher to save its season.
The Tar Heels’ offense has been prolific all season and again came out swinging.
But after Noland escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the first inning, he locked in and UNC couldn’t solve him in a 4–1 Razorbacks victory in Game 1 of the Chapel Hill Super Regionals.
“He had an electric slider that kept us off-balance,” UNC shortstop Danny Serretti said of Noland. “You’ve got to tip your hat to him and come back ready to go.”
UNC (42–21) just hopes that left-hander Brandon Schaeffer (7–3, 3.58 ERA) can come up with a similar performance in Game 2 of the best-of-three series at 1 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2) with the season on the line.
Carolina coach Scott Forbes is confident that his team can withstand two elimination games after it battled through three last weekend.
“I’ve been along on this ride ever since they’ve taken all of us on it, and this is a group that I firmly believe can do anything,” Forbes said. “So, you’ve got a guy on the mound that has experience.”
Forbes knows that Shaeffer has come through against tough competition in huge spots this season. He shut out Virginia Tech a day after the Hokies scored 18 runs in the ACC tournament and gutted out a start against VCU last weekend on one day of rest.
“He’s just consistent,” Forbes said. “You know what you’re gonna get. He’s gonna be in the zone. He gets better as the game goes, which is a great attribute for a starter. He’s a tremendous kid and an unbelievable student. He just represents us extremely well with everything that he does.”
In Carolina’s nine previous Super Regional appearances, it has never advanced after losing the opener.
“I feel like we’ve been playing with our backs against the wall for as long as I can remember,” Serretti said. “We’re ready for it. If any team can do it, it’s going to be this one.”
UNC starter Max Carlson (4–3) is confident as well.
“I don’t think anyone’s worried and just gonna come back [Sunday] and get to Game 3,” Carlson (top photo) said.
Forbes has seen that his team has repeatedly been resilient this season.
“This group has been close, tight, unified, even through those tough times. So this is just another block in the road that we’ve had,” Forbes said. “We talked to our guys about the importance of having perspective and living in the moment.”
After Noland (7–6) struck out Alberto Osuna in the first inning, Mikey Madej hit a liner off the right calf of Noland, who threw out Madej at first base to get out of the bases-loaded threat. Noland retired 19 of the last 21 Tar Heels he faced, scattering six hits and walking one with six strikeouts in 6⅔ innings.
Carlson subdued Arkansas’ first scoring threat in the fourth inning with runners at first and second and two outs by striking out Jalen Battles.
Peyton Stovall broke through with a long leadoff home run to right-center field, only his fifth homer of the season, to ignite a three-run fifth inning.
“I felt really good today,” Carlson said. “Just left some stuff up and they hit it and got those three runs in the fifth and got it done for them.”
After the Hogs (42–19) added Brady Slavens’ bases-loaded RBI single and Cayden Wallace’s sacrifice fly, Carlson averted further damage by inducing an inning-ending double play but Arkansas had a 3–0 lead. Serretti smoothly got the double play started.
Carlson gave way to reliever Nik Pry after a leadoff walk in the sixth after giving up six hits, three runs and two walks against four strikeouts.
Slavens’ RBI single in the seventh inning made it 4–0.
Vance Honeycutt’s solo home run with two out in the seventh inning off left-handed reliever Evan Taylor cut it to 4–1. The blast set the UNC single-season record with 25 home runs, topping the 24 that Devy Bell hit in 1986.
UNC home runs in a season
Vance Honeycutt (2022) 25
Devy Bell (1986) 24
Chris Maples (2002) 23
Dustin Ackley (2009) 22
Cookie Massey (1994) 22
Scott Johnson (1985) 22
Carolina’s Caden O’Brien gave up three hits in three shutout innings with three strikeouts, which helped make sure that the Tar Heels’ bullpen wasn’t overly taxed on Saturday.
“This time of year, you got some guys nicked up a little bit and he’s not,” Forbes said. “For him to bridge that gap and not have to go to [closer Davis] Palermo, not have to go to [Connor] Bovair, I thought that was huge for us.”
It was the first time UNC has been held to fewer than two runs since a 12-1 April 1 home loss to Virginia Tech.
With Angel Zarate’s leadoff single in the first inning, he became the ninth player in UNC program history to collect 100 hits in a season.
Arkansas 4, North Carolina 1
Chapel Hill Super Regional
Game 1 — Arkansas 4, North Carolina 1; Razorbacks lead series 1–0
Game 2 — 1 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2
Game 3 (if needed) — Time and TV TBA
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications