Tar Heels finally find a spark to stay alive in NCAA baseball tourney

UNC will try to keep its momentum going on Sunday at 1 p.m. in another win-or-go-home game against Florida Gulf Coast. The second-seeded Eagles lost to Davidson 2-1 in the second game of the day Saturday

Jeffrey A. Camarati—UNC Athletic Communications photo
UNC's Michael Busch and Cody Roberts celebrate during their team's 8-1 NCAA tournament victory against Michigan on Saturday

CHAPEL HILL — There are any number of factors that could have ignited the spark that helped extend North Carolina’s baseball season Saturday. It could have been a sudden spell of wildness by Michigan pitcher Michael Hendrickson, a defensive two-strike swing by freshman Ashton McGee or even moment of comic relief from a therapy dog named Remington. Or all of the above. Each of those things happened during a decisive fifth-inning rally that catapulted the top-seeded Tar Heels to an 8-1 victory and kept them alive in the double-elimination NCAA regional tournament. Coach Mike Fox’s team will try to keep its momentum going on Sunday at 1 p.m. in another win-or-go-home game against Florida Gulf Coast. The second-seeded Eagles lost to Davidson 2-1 in the second game of the day Saturday.. “I tried to tell them please don’t look at this as an elimination game. That’s a negative term right out of the gate,” Fox said afterward. “But it is what it is. It’s hard to hide the fact that it is the case. “They want to do well. They want to win here in front of the crowd. I think just us getting our first NCAA win with this group, we’ll see how it helps us going forward.” UNC (48-13) was relegated to the loser’s bracket with a stunning 8-4 opening round loss to fourth-seeded Davidson on Friday and looked out of sorts at the plate again in the early going against the Wolverines. They mustered only a single hit through the first four innings against Hendrickson and trailed 1-0 on a second-inning homer by Michigan’s Drew Lugbauer. But things changed rapidly and dramatically in the top of the fifth (yes, the Tar Heels were the visiting team on their own home field). It all started quite benignly, with Zack Gahagan taking a called strike three and Tyler Lynn taking first after getting hit by a pitch. As designated hitter Adam Pate stepped into the batter’s box, the game was delayed momentarily when Remington — the golden retriever being trained by UNC athletic trainer Terri Jo Rucinski — sprinted out of the dugout and around foul territory along the third base line before quickly returning back to the dugout. Whether the incident distracted Hendrickson or broke his rhythm is a matter of conjecture. What is certain is that the Wolverines pitcher had trouble finding the plate from that point on as the once ominously quiet Boshamer Stadium crowd finally began to come to life. After getting Pate to bounce into a fielder’s choice for the second out, Henrickson plunked ninth hitter Cody Roberts and walked the next two men on eight straight pitches to tie the score at 1. Then after getting ahead 0-2 on McGee, the ACC Rookie of the Year lunged at an outside pitch and got enough bat on it to serve the ball into left field for a single. Two runs scored on the play to put UNC ahead 3-1. It was the first time in the tournament that the Tar Heels had a lead. “I think it was a big thing getting a lead,” said McGee, who admitted that he was only trying to protect the plate with his defensive swing that produced his big hit. “I think we needed that to stay positive. Obviously yesterday we didn’t get the lead at all. We scored runs late in the game, but just having the league gave everybody a deep breath and just go in and play.” Suddenly relaxed, the Tar Heels responded by scoring three more runs in the sixth and two more in the seventh to pull away for the victory. Lynn had three hits to lead the offense while McGee, Logan Warmoth and Cody Roberts drove in two runs each. UNC also benefitted from nine walks and three hit batsmen. “You have to take advantage of what the other team gives you,” Fox said. “You can’t control them. But when they start walking you and kind of get rattled, you’ve got to step up and make them pay.” If the Tar Heels are able to beat FGCU and stay alive, they would earn a return match with Davidson, which will then have two tries to win the one game necessary to send it to the first Super Regional in school history. Fox said he’s leaning toward starting freshman Tyler Baum in his team’s next elimination game. He can only hope he gets as stout an effort as he did from fellow freshman Dalatri on Saturday. The young right-hander allowed just one run on five hits while striking out six over his seven innings before giving way to relievers Brett Daniels and Jason Morgan to finish. “The game always starts with pitching and we got a great performance by Luca today,” Fox said. “That kind of set the tone for us, so we’re happy to have won and still