CHAPEL HILL — Cody Roberts was concerned that he might only be a spectator for North Carolina’s most important games this season after suffering an injury that required surgery a little more than three weeks ago.
Friday afternoon he not only got to play, but his contribution was instrumental in pushing the Tar Heels to the brink of their first College World Series trip since 2013.
The junior catcher/outfielder homered off Stetson ace Logan Gilbert, the 14th player selected in this week’s Major League Baseball draft, to propel his team to a 7-4 victory against the Hatters in Game 1 of its NCAA Super Regional at Boshamer Stadium.
UNC can clinch the best-of-three series and punch its ticket to Omaha by winning Game 2 on Saturday. A deciding third game, if necessary, would be played Sunday.
“Having that injury was tough,” said Roberts, who missed two weeks after being hit in the groin with a foul ball against Duke on May 13.
“I knew for sure I was going to be out at least the first weekend and then the ACC tournament and I was kind of stressing that I wasn’t going to be able to get back for (last week’s) regional. But they have good doctors here and I was able to recover pretty quickly.”
Roberts was clearly back in the swing of things in the Super Regional opener against Gilbert, the 14th overall selection in this week’s Major League Baseball draft.
He doubled off the third base bag in the bottom of the first to fuel a rally that allowed the Tar Heels to quickly answer a homer by the Hatters’ Mike Spooner in the top of the inning. Then, with the score still tied at one in the fifth, Roberts hammered a hanging curveball by Gilbert onto the screen behind the left field wall for a three-run shot that put UNC ahead.
The big hit was preceded by a walk to teammate Michael Busch on a borderline pitch that would have been the third out of the inning had it been called a strike instead of a ball.
“Cody’s ball that he hit was huge for us,” winning pitcher Cooper Criswell, who matched the more heralded Gilbert pitch-for-pitch over five strong innings, said. “That kind of got us over the top and gave us the confidence we needed.”
UNC (42-18) got the better of Gilbert, knocking him out of the game after just 5 1/3 innings, matching his shortest outing of the season. While Roberts got the Tar Heels off to a strong start, it was Busch’s bat that allowed the Tar Heels (42-18) close the deal against the Hatters’ bullpen.
The Most Outstanding Player of UNC’s regional title last week, Busch highlighted a three-run seventh inning rally with a long homer of his own to put the home team back in control after Stetson had climbed back to within 4-3 in the top of the inning.
Brandon Riley also drove in a run with a double in the bounce back rally Tar Heels coach Mike Fox called “the key to the game.”
As it turned out, UNC nearly needed every bit of its four-run cushion before finally putting the upstart Hatters away.
After combining with Criswell and relievers Caden O’Brien and Rodney Hutchison to keep Stetson in check for the first eight innings, closer Josh Hiatt suddenly ran into trouble after getting the first two outs in the ninth.
He walked pinch-hitter Baylen Sparks, then hit leadoff man Andrew McNeill before giving up a run-scoring single to Spooner.
At that point, Fox called hard-throwing right-hander Austin Bergner — the Tar Heels’ potential Game 3 starter — to get the final out.
He did, eventually. But not before walking the bases loaded, then inducing Stetson cleanup hitter Brooks Wilson into a long, loud fly out to the warning track in left field that brought a sigh of relief from UNC’s coach and the 3,631 fans in attendance.
The loss was the first for Stetson (48-12) since April 22 and snapped the nation’s longest winning streak at 18 straight.
“The last three outs, the last out, they’re hard to get,” Fox said. “Obviously we were hoping Josh would finish after getting two quick outs, but you have to give them credit. They kept battling and trying to get the tying run to the plate. The kid put a good swing on it and hit it hard. We were a little lucky there.”