CHAPEL HILL – Nearly everything went right for the Tar Heels in their 11-0 opening NCAA Tournament Regionals win over North Carolina A&T.
Taking the extra base, squaring up the ball at the plate. Throwing the breaking ball across the plate for a strike. Simply pitching strikes.
Name your favorite cliché “little thing” that has to go right in baseball, and it went the Tar Heels' (39-18) way, while simultaneously going against the Aggies (32-24).
So much so that when head coach Mike Fox was asked if anything went wrong for the Tar Heels, he was at a loss for words.
“I’ve never been asked that question before,” Fox said, joking, “I guess my bacon was a little too crisp this morning?”
His two players joining him on the press podium, winning pitcher Cooper Criswell and five-RBI first baseman Michael Busch, cracked up. When you play as well as the Tar Heels did on Friday, you can afford to crack some jokes. Particularly when you know the flipside of that joy could’ve so easily been the reality of the afternoon.
Nearly a year ago to the day, the North Carolina baseball team gave up eight runs to No. 4 seed Davidson to fall 8-4. It was the Wildcats’ first ever NCAA tournament win in 115 years, and UNC’s first ever loss in an opening game at a regional they hosted.
Ace J.B. Bukauskas tied his season high in earned runs with six. The potent Tar Heel offense was kept in check until late. Defense wasn’t as crisp. Nearly everything went wrong.
On Friday, none of those issues flared up. Unlike Bukauskas, who struggled with his slider a year ago, Criswell’s breaking pitch was seemingly perfect at times on Friday, catching multiple Aggies looking throughout his six-scoreless innings on the mound.
“First inning, I struggled a little bit with my slider,” Criswell said, noting he kept missing the zone with the pitch by too much to get hitters to chase. “After that, I just focused in more with my slider with two strikes and tried to get out there where they’d chase, but not too far out.”
It worked. The junior right-hander had six strikeouts on just 73 pitches before giving way to scoreless innings from Cade O’Brien, Rodney Hutchinson and Tyler Baum to get the combined shutout.
Behind Criswell, things were great for the Tar Heels as well. Defense was clean, with zero errors on the game and several nice plays, including a web gem barehand off the bobble and pick over at first from Kyle Datres and Busch respectively, and a double play off a line drive to right fielder Cody Roberts that set the tone early.
And at the plate, it was a team effort, with nine different Tar Heels reaching base, seven scoring runs, and five driving in runs throughout the game.
The most RBIs went to Busch, who pushed three of his five runs across on a moonshot homerun to center field that brushed the top of the tree branches beside the batter’s eye and really busted the game open to give UNC a 7-0 lead.
“I just try to hit the ball and get to second on something like that,” Busch said. “If it happens to go over the wall, it happens to go over the wall.”
It was a positive result for a team that bowed out of the ACC tournament before bracket play, and something that kept that home field advantage going, with Friday's win being their 14th straight at home.
The Tar Heels will take on the winner of tonight’s 7 p.m. game between Purdue and Houston. First pitch for the winner’s game on Saturday is set for 6 p.m.