North Carolina knew they would have to bring their best game to the College World Series opener on Saturday. Facing No. 3 Oregon State and ace Luke Heimlich, the No. 6 Tar Heels had their work cut out for them.
Momentum swings would be a theme in this one, as both teams traded blows throughout the contest, but ultimately the Tar Heels would wrench an 8-6 victory away from the Beavers in game one.
UNC came out of the gates firing. Kyle Datres ripped a single, Michael Busch got hit by a pitch, and the Tar Heels were in business. Momentum looked to be firmly on the Heels’ side, but after Heimlich was able to escape with no Heels crossing the plate, the wind now blew right behind the Beavers’ sails.
Oregon State mounted a slight rally in the bottom of the first, but that wasn’t the worst news for the Tar Heels. The real trouble that inning came when starter Gianluca Dalatri was forced out of the game with an injury after recording only two outs.
Freshman Caden O’Brien came on in relief — setting the UNC record for appearances by a freshman with 29 — and got out of the jam on a spectacular play by Kyle Datres. After a hard-hit ball up the middle ricocheted off O’Brien’s glove, Datres was able to barehand it and fire to first in time to get the runner, holding the Beavers to only one in the inning.
With the momentum Oregon State gained, it would have been understandable if they had taken control of the game early, but the Tar Heels were having none of that.
A huge sacrifice bunt by Ashton McGee paved the way for Ben Casparius to start his huge return game — he hadn’t played since the Duke series in May due to an injury — with an RBI groundout in the second to tie it up.
The Beavers went quietly in the second, setting the table for a Tar Heel takeover in the third. Heimlich would get chased as the Tar Heels plated five to take a commanding 6-1 lead into the bottom of the third.
But that margin didn’t hold for long. Oregon State put together a solid bottom half as well, plating three to put the margin at 6-4.
The teams sat in a stalemate for the next few innings, as the Tar Heels ran through Brett Daniels, Joey Lacellotti, and Josh Hiatt to keep the Beavers attack at bay.
It was again Casparius that struck to break the stalemate, driving an RBI single to plate.
Oregon State would again respond. Trevor Larnach, and Adley Rutschman spearheaded the rally with hits to start the inning, and were driven in to make it 8-6. This chased Hiatt from the game and caused the Tar Heels to bring on probable game two starter Cooper Criswell.
Like a true fireman, Criswell came in and put out the fire to keep the Beavers off the board. Criswell would work 2.1 innings total to finish the game and earn his first save as a Tar Heel.
Criswell pitched well, but only struck out two. The defense behind him was razor sharp, and the eighth inning produced what ultimately proved to be the defining plays in this one. Criswell was tasked with facing the heart of the Oregon State lineup, and allowed Cadyn Grenier to get on base as a leadoff runner. At this point, it looked dangerous for Criswell to navigate the minefield of sweet swinging Beavers with a runner already on base.
However, catcher Brandon Martorano ended that threat quickly with a snap throw to first, picking off Grenier. The inning went smoothly from that point on, ending with a finale as Gahagan made another “GahaGoat” play, ranging to his arm side to make a running throw, with Busch adding the pickup at first.
That stretch of dominant defense broke open the Beavers’ dam, allowing the Tar Heels to flood in the entirety of the momentum en route to their opening 8-6 victory.
Stats: The Tar Heels were led by the five-six-seven — Ike Freeman-Gahagan-Martorano — spots in the lineup. These three bats combined to go 5-11 with six runs.
Given the success of those above them, it should come as no surprise that the eight-nine hitters led the RBI charge. Ashton McGee had two out of the eight hole, and Casparius provided three out of the nine spot.
Carolina plays again Monday night, when they will face the winner of Mississippi State and Washington.