UNC sneaks past Houston, 4-3

CHAPEL HILL – One game more.

Another game another destiny.

On this ever-winding road to Omaha.

These men who seem to play this sport will surely give their best effort.

One game more.

Enough musical references for you? Me, too. 

Here’s the real lede, nice and simple: the North Carolina baseball team hung on Saturday night against the Houston Cougars, winning 4-3 and putting themselves just one win away from reaching the Super Regionals for the first time since 2013.

Powered by the loudest crowd at Boshamer Stadium in recent memory, the Tar Heels never trailed at any point in a tightly contested battle where runs and hits were at a premium. 

Gianluca Dalatri earned the win with five innings on the mound and just one earned run. Josh Hiatt threw three innings out of the pen to earn his fifth save of the season, while four different Tar Heels crossed the plate to score.

It was a gritty team effort throughout the game. One Coach Mike Fox has come to expect out of this year's team. 

"I've said all along that this team's toughness is a trait I really see in them," Fox said. "Mentally and physically."

UNC got out to an early lead in the top of the second, when Zack Gahagan bared down and battled through ten-pitch at-bat, turning the final pitch into a missile that sailed through the evening sky beyond the left field fence for a two-run homer.

"It was low fastball," Houston left-hander Tyler Cumbie said of the pitch her threw to Gahagan. "He just kind of golfed it and jumped all over it, so I tip my hat to him. "

UNC tacked on one more the next time up, scoring Kyle Datres on perfectly executed safety squeeze from Cody Roberts in the top of the third. The bunt was right down the first base line, and Houston had no play but to first to get an out.

Dalatri would give up his only run in the bottom of the fifth, a solo-shot off the bat of Tyler Bielamowicz. It was Dalatri’s first run given up in 14 innings, and the first since he came back from injury just a couple of weeks ago.

The Cougars would add another run in the bottom of the seventh, when a passed ball off the glove of Cody Roberts scored a runner from third, setting up what proved to be the climatic moment of the game. 

Runner on third. One out. Houston catcher hits a fly ball off of a Josh Hiatt pitch to right fielder Josh Ladowski, who had come in as a pinch hitter just an inning before. Ladowski settled under it, got a running start, caught the ball and fired a rope home, short hopping into the glove of Cody Roberts, who applied the tag on the diving Cougar runner for the final out and keeping UNC ahead 3-2. 

Cue the insanity that followed. A deafening roar from the Bosh crowd, Brandon Riley pumping his arms in the air as he jogs in from center. Ladowski running so hard in from right he nearly knocks Hiatt to the ground when gives him a leaping chest bump.

"It was a little scary, I didn't really know what was coming from Josh, he's pretty crazy," Hiatt said. "That was one of the best defensive plays I've ever seen."

Ladowski knew the situation he found himself in might occur. But while the play went exactly to plan, the aftermath didn't.

"Before the play, I pictured it in my head, and I told myself I wasn't going to get really excited if I did it, I was just going to try to act cool" Ladowski said. "It happened, and I saw Ike Freeman's face just freaking out and I had no choice but to go crazy." 

Fox said that he was glad the junior outfielder, a seldom used reserve that's had 18 at-bats all season, got a chance to shine on Saturday. He said Ladowski is the most well liked players on the team, though he wasn't sure why. 

"When I go out and read out the lineup, I have all the guys that aren't playing on the back," Fox said of the type of situation Ladowski often finds himself in pregame. "So I just remind them 'hey, there are some guys on the back of this card that are probably gonna affect the game.'"

UNC would tack on a crucial insurance run in the top of the eighth, when Ike Freeman would single home Cody Roberts from second to make the score 4-2. 

Josh Hiatt, who had four strikeouts in three innings of work out of the bullpen, would end up giving up a solo-homerun to Joe Davis in the bottom of the ninth, but would bounce back to retire the final two batters to end the game. 

UNC will face the winner of Purdue and Houston's 1 p.m. loser's bracket matchup at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Fox said UNC will likely turn to Austin Bergner as the starting pitcher for the pivotal game.