Tar Heels looking for fast start in NCAA baseball regional

Rather than waiting for a second day game against a higher seed, UNC coach Mike Fox is handing the ball to ACC Pitcher of the Year J.B. Bukauskas on Friday for his teams NCAA opener against Davidson

Joe Bray/UNC Athletic Communications photo—Joe Bray/UNC Athletic Communications photo
J.B. Bukauskas posted an 9-0 record with 111 strikeouts in 89 innings and a conference best 2.02 earned run average to become the fourth UNC player to earn ACC Pitcher of the Year honors

CHAPEL HILL — Some baseball coaches, especially those with a top-seeded team, like to hold their best pitcher back for the second game of a double-elimination tournament. North Carolina’s Mike Fox isn’t among them. Rather than waiting for winner’s bracket or elimination game against a higher seed on Saturday, Fox is handing the ball to ACC Pitcher of the Year J.B. Bukauskas on Friday for the Tar Heels’ 6 p.m. NCAA regional opener against Davidson at Boshamer Stadium. His reasoning is sound. This isn’t time of year to take any chances. With the fourth-seeded Wildcats having already taken his top-seeded team to extra innings during the regular season and UNC sporting an impressive 12-2 record in the opening game of a weekend series, in large part because of Bukauskas’ work on the mound, Fox has decided it best to play his ace right off the top of the deck. “He’s 9-0 and I think we’ve won every Friday game but one or two,” Fox said. “We’ve gotten off to a good start. That’s one reason we’re staying like we are. We have to get off to a good start in this tournament. “Our players feel good with all our pitchers on the mound, but when you get a guy like (Bukauskas) they feel like if he throws like he’s capable, we’re going to have a pretty darn good chance of winning.” The Tar Heels (47-12) will take on either second-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (42-18) or No. 3 Michigan (42-15) on Saturday in either a winner’s bracket or elimination game with freshman Gianluca Dalatri getting the assignment on the mound in his regular spot in the rotation.Fox said he’ll make any further pitching decisions depending on how the tournament unfolds. Unlike the first game in some double-elimination regional brackets, Davidson is anything but a walkover for the NCAA tournament’s No. 2 national seed. The Wildcats are 32-24 and the Atlantic 10 Conference champions. On May 9, they went into the ninth inning leading UNC 6-3 before the Tar Heels rallied to tie the game, then win it in the 10th on an RBI hit by ACC Rookie of the Year Ashton McGee. Although Davidson earned the respect of Fox and his players with their performance that night, their level of confidence heading into the more meaningful rematch is high because of the man they’ll have on the mound this time around. Bukauskas is 9-0 with a 2.02 earned run average and 111 strikeouts in 89 innings. Opposing hitters are batting just .180 against him, “All of our hitters have faced him in scrimmages and I can promise you, he’s the last pitcher any of these teams wants to face,” left fielder Tyler Lynn said Thursday. “He’s the best pitcher in the country and he’s always going to give us a chance to win. It doesn’t matter who we put him up against.”Bukauskas will have the advantage of his own scouting report against his in-state rival. Although he didn’t pitch against Davidson in that regular season meeting — freshman right-hander Tyler Baum got the call, giving up three runs in 3⅓ innings before giving way to the bullpen — Bukauskas still managed to get some firsthand knowledge on the Wildcats hitters he’ll be facing Friday. “I charted Tyler Baum for that game, so I’ve gotten a good look at Davidson and what pitches did what against their team,”Bukauskas said. “I think we have a good scouting report. It’s just an added bonus that I got to chart against them. I’ll try to take that into the game.” While the Tar Heels will have the advantage of experience against the Wildcats, experience in NCAA tournament play will be in short supply on a team that missed out on the postseason in each of the past two years. Only one player on the current roster, reserve outfielder Adam Pate, has seen action in an NCAA regional game. That’s a detail Fox isn’t worrying about as his team begins its quest for the 11th College World Series trip in school history. “This team is going to be ready,” the veteran coach said. “I think they’ve worked all year for this. So if you’ve been pointing to this all season, every practice, every game, every workout, you certainly can’t shy away from it or not embrace it when it gets here. I think this team will respond.”