John Manuel

UNC, NC State baseball rivalry returns to Chapel Hill

Posted April 11
Updated April 13

JB Bukauskas remembers the sound.

“One side was yelling ‘Wolf,’” North Carolina’s junior righthander recalled. “The other side was yelling, ‘Pack,’ and it was LOUD. I don’t know how many people they get into that park, but they’re right on top of you, and it was really loud.

“I just know that our fans are going to have that kind of atmosphere going this weekend. It’s a great rivalry series, that’s what it’s all about.”

Bukauskas was talking about last season’s visit by North Carolina to N.C. State’s Doak Field at Dail Park, the last regular-season series of the year. The Wolfpack took two out of three that weekend, losing to Bukauskas but winning the series, nudging the Tar Heels out of the ACC Tournament field and an NCAA regional berth.

This year’s Heels, ranked No. 4 by Baseball America, hope to turn the tables. While they play South Carolina, ranked 17th, Tuesday in Charlotte, the big matchup of the week for North Carolina comes this weekend when N.C. State comes to Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels (26-6, 12-3 ACC) are coming off a sweep of Boston College in which they scored 48 runs in three games, overcoming an off start by their ace Bukauskas (5-0, 1.76, 75 SO/51 IP) to sweep their second straight ACC opponent. Freshmen righties Gianluca Dalatri and Austin Bergner both pitched well Sunday in a doubleheader to finish off the sweep, with Bergner tossing five innings and striking out four in his first start.

After demolishing the Eagles, Carolina leads the ACC in runs scored (117 in 15 league games) and ranks second with a 2.73 ERA. Juniors Logan Warmoth (.348/.426/.600, team-best 7 HR) and Brian Miller (.319/.394/.489, 4 HR) have combined for 29 stolen bases and give the Tar Heels a power-speed combination at the top of the lineup.

Freshman DH Ashton McGee (.305 and sophomore third baseman Kyle Datres (.313/.431/.518, team-high 27 RBIs) round out the first four in the Tar Heels’ newly powerful lineup. Righthanded-hitting Zack Gahagan, who gets most of his playing time at second base and first base, should be key against a Wolfpack rotation that includes a pair of lefthanders.

“We’re playing well,” Bukauskas said. “When we have a game where someone like me on the pitching staff doesn’t come through, the offense can pick us up. I just think we’ve learned from the last two years and don’t want to go through that again.”

The Wolfpack (18-15, 7-8 ACC) and Heels have one recent common opponent in Florida State. UNC swept the Seminoles prior to sweeping BC, while N.C. State is coming off a series win against the ‘Noles this weekend, taking the final two games after getting “boat-raced,” as coach Elliott Avent put it, on Friday night.

Avent said he pulled his team together after Florida State put up a 10-spot in the seventh inning in that opener and told them to forget the score and just compete, and he was pleased that the Pack answered with four runs in the bottom of the inning to show some fight.

He was happier when junior lefty Brian Brown (6.1 innings) and freshman righty Michael Bienlien (six innings, two runs) came through with quality starts and the offense came alive with a pair of home runs Saturday and eight runs Sunday to win the series. Freshmen are playing several key roles for the veteran-laden Pack, with Bienlien, whose running, sinking fastball can reach 93 mph, helping solidify the rotation behind Brown and senior lefty Sean Adler. Another freshman, Dalton Feeney, got the save Sunday and could emerge as the Wolfpack’s new closer thanks to his 92-94 mph fastball.

Freshmen Will Wilson, a second baseman, and catcher/DH Brad Debo have become offensive leaders, with Debo leading the club in batting at .359/.398/.524 with three homers and 25 RBIs. He hits cleanup as part of a left-leaning lineup that will face a Carolina pitching staff replete with righthanded pitching.

“We needed this (success) headed into their house next weekend,” Avent said. “They’re rolling, but my team has survived.”

Avent’s veterans, such as junior shortstop Joe Dunand (.264/.349/.618), have started to come around, with Dunand hitting his 11th homer over the weekend, tying him for second in the league. Junior third baseman Evan Mendoza (.227/.317/.305) had a key three-run homer in Saturday’s win and has started to look better, and sophomore left fielder Brett Kinneman (.278/.376/.500) hit two homers in Friday’s loss.

State, which plays UNC Greensboro on Tuesday at home, has the pieces starting to come together to a team ranked 14th in the preseason, three spots ahead of the Tar Heels. To this point, North Carolina has been the better team, but this weekend, that may not mean very much. That’s how rivalries are supposed to go.

Duke avoids sweep

Playing a Saturday-to-Monday series at Miami, Duke rallied for a Monday victory, scoring three runs in the 10th to avoid a sweep and win 5-2.

It was a strong sign of toughness by the Blue Devils (17-17, 6-9 ACC) considering they’d lost the first two games, including Saturday when they blew a 7-0 lead, losing 9-7 on a walk-off three-run homer by Miami’s Johnny Ruiz. After losing Sunday, Duke lost a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning Monday but rallied with five hits in the 10th to fend off the Hurricanes.

“I challenged our team to be the tougher team,” coach Chris Pollard told goduke.com. “To give up the lead in the bottom of the eighth, to have to hold on in the bottom of the ninth, to win an extra-inning game on the road with four two-out hits for the go-ahead runs . . . we really showed ourselves how tough we are and how well we can compete.”

After playing Campbell on Wednesday, Duke hosts Boston College in a weekend ACC series that will be played on campus at Jack Coombs Field.

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