Baseball wins can come in all shapes and sizes. So do baseball programs. Coming into tonight, Iowa had gone 2,191 days since their last NCAA Tournament win. In that time span, North Carolina picked up 13 wins and appeared in a College World Series. However, when the dust settled on this Friday night, it was the Hawkeyes that came away with the 5-4 victory to start 1-0 in the Terre Haute Regional.
Will Christophersen came on in relief, needing just three outs to nail down Iowa’s first NCAA regional win in six seasons. For the first time since late March, he struggled and the Tar Heels made their move at a big comeback.
Johnny Castagnozzi worked a walk to start the rally and Alberto Osuna followed by cutting the Iowa lead in half with a two run homer. Colby Wilkerson followed with a single, while a one out walk issued to UNC power hitter Mac Horvath put two runners on, with just one out. That brought Rick Heller out of the dugout and he made the call to the bullpen to bring in Luke Llewellyn.
The Hawkeye closer came on to face second baseman Jackson Van De Brake who snuck a line drive just in front of Brayden Frazier in right field for an RBI single. All of a sudden, North Carolina had the tying run on third base and the go ahead run on second.
Just when it looked UNC was going to pull off the surprising ninth inning comeback, Llewellyn slammed the door shut on the Heels frantic rally. He froze Tomas Frick strike three and then got Hunter Stokely to swing at a pitch in the dirt to end the game.
Although the big story was the final inning of the game, there were eight innings before that and it started with Marcus Morgan getting the start on the mound. It wasn’t necessarily the shutdown, no stress outing that the coaching staff probably hoped for, but one run allowed over five innings put the Hawkeyes in a position to go get a win. The outing was not without a bit of traffic on the bases.
A hit by pitch on the second pitch of the game and a one out walk gave UNC a scoring chance in first. Morgan rebounded, getting a fly out and a ground out to put a zero up on the scoreboard. That, plus some runs from the Hawkeye offense allowed him to settle into his start.
The Hawkeyes got two on, with just one out in the bottom of the first off Tar Heels starter Jake Knapp. After Raider Tello struck out, Sam Hojnar took the first pitch from Knapp and slashed it the opposite way down the left field line for a two run double to make it 2-0 Hawkeyes.
In the second, a pair of hits from the bottom of the order put Iowa in a position to extend their early lead. Ben Wilmes drove in a run with an infield single, which made it 3-0, but Knapp got out of the jam with limited damage after a strikeout and a groundout. The Hawkeyes were able to knock him out of the game after 2.1 innings and 56 pitches.
With a three run advantage, Marcus Morgan settled in and retired six in a row after a leadoff single in the second inning. However, trouble started to brew in the fourth inning. UNC catcher Tomas Frick got on base with a leadoff double, while a pair of walks loaded the bases with just one out.
Alberto Osuna drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, but that was all that Tar Heels could muster, as Morgan got a groundout to end the inning. His final line read 5.0 innings, one run, two hits, five strikeouts and six free bases.
The middle half of the game was dominated by the first guys out of the bullpen for both teams. Kevin Eaise went 3.2 innings for the Tar Heels three strikeouts to just one hit. Meanwhile, it was Jack Whitlock going 3.0 scoreless innings with a couple of strikeouts to keep the North Carolina offense in check. Going into the eighth inning, the Hawkeyes were still hanging on to a slim 3-1 lead.
Insert late, but very important insurance runs. Coming into the game, the Hawkeyes had scored 24 runs in the seventh inning or later of their last four wins. Tonight, the two runs Iowa managed ended up being the difference between a win and a loss.
Michael Seegers drew a walk and Kyle Huckstorf singled to put runners on the corners with no outs for Brayden Frazier. He delivered an RBI single, which was followed by a Cade Moss squeeze bunt to bring in another run. The importance of extending from a 3-1 lead to a 5-1 lead became increasingly evident as the Tar Heels mounted a rally in the ninth inning. In the end, a win is a win and the Hawkeyes are on the winner’s bracket side of the Terre Haute Regional.