(UNC Athletics image)
After being down 5-0 early and 8-5 late, UNC came from behind to stun their rival NC State Thursday night, 9-8. It was a beautiful night for baseball in Chapel Hill, as the Tar Heels and Wolfpack kicked off the first of three crucial games between two teams that are currently sitting on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
NC State jumped out to a 5-0 lead off UNC starter Connor Bovair, who managed to get just one out in the first inning before making way for junior right hander Ben Peterson. Gino Groover and Jacob Cozart walked to bring up freshman DH Cannon Peebles, who drilled a no-doubter to right center for a 3-run home run. Will Marcy then doubled and Trevor Candelaria walked, ending Bovair's start after just 30 pitches. Peterson was able to strike out Eli Serrano for the second out, but Payton Green doubled to left to drive in two more, and it was 5-0 Wolfpack after just one inning.
The Tar Heels battled back in the third inning after loading the bases for Jackson Van De Brake, who hit a dribbler just to the right of the mound, avoiding the double play and allowing Alberto Osuna to score from third. Vance Honeycutt then doubled home Colby Wilkerson and Casey Cook to get UNC back within two. Tomas Frick, who went 4-5 in the game for the Tar Heels, later doubled to bring home Honeycutt and make it 5-4 after three innings.
In the fourth, NC State added another run, and it had a chance for even more, when outfielder Noah Soles attempted to score on a pop-up to shallow center that was fielded by the UNC second baseman Van De Brake. Soles was thrown at home to end the inning, and the NC State threat. The Wolfpack added another insurance run in the top of the fifth on a Kalae Harrison sac fly to make it 7-4, before UNC got one back when Johnny Castognozzi was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
With the bases still loaded and only one out in the bottom of the 5th, NC State called on freshman standout Dominic Fritton to put out the fire. He came in and struck out Osuna swinging for the second out before getting Wilkerson to pop out to first, stranding the bases loaded. Fritton was outstanding for three innings before running into trouble in the 8th. Cook and Van De Brake hit back-to-back doubles, despite diving attempts by Wolfpack outfielders, to make it 8-6, then Honeycutt beat out a ground ball to shortstop with one out that scored Van De Brake from third and cut the Wolfpack lead to 8-7.
UNC relief ace Matt Poston entered in the top of the ninth and held NC State scoreless to give the Tar Heels a chance to tie or win it in the bottom half. Fritton stayed in to face Hunter Stokley, who walked to lead off the inning and was replaced by pinch runner Reese Holbrook. Castognozzi laid down a perfect sac bunt to put the runner Holbrook in scoring position, and pinch hitter Eric Grintz tripled to right field to tie the game. The Tar Heels then called for Colby Wilkerson to lay down the suicide squeeze bunt, as a second pinch runner Carter French broke for home. It was a perfect bunt, and the NC State defense never had a chance to get French at home.
The Tar Heels used seven different pitchers and were able to clinch the critical series opener in dramatic fashion. NC State will be devastated to let this one slip away, as now they need to win both remaining games in this series to improve their resume for potential postseason play. The two teams play game two of the series Friday night at 7:00 pm, with coverage on the ACC Network.