North Carolina Survives Elimination, Forces Game 3 Against Auburn
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina escaped Game 2 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional with a 2-0 victory against Auburn to even the series and force a decisive third game. The Tar Heels had plenty of opportunities to widen the gap and relieve some pressure, but they were unable to capitalize offensively.
Still, with their season on the line, the Tar Heels found a way to win. Righthanders Austin Bergner and Austin Love combined to shut out a powerful Auburn offense, holding it to just six hits and four walks.
Love was especially stingy, throwing 4.2 scoreless innings of relief. He struck out six, walked none and allowed just two hits.
Love said he thought the Tar Heels responded well to the pressure of an elimination game, something they hadn’t yet faced in the NCAA Tournament after sweeping through the Chapel Hill Regional last weekend.
“Knowing that our season is on the line, I think it gives you a lot of extra motivation knowing it’s either win or go home,” Love said. “I think that really helped our team.”
The Tar Heels once again got off to an early lead, but couldn't extend the margin when they had the opportunity.
First baseman Michael Busch kicked off the action for North Carolina, driving the second pitch of the game to right field for a single, followed by a walk to freshman slugger Aaron Sabato. A great catch near second base by Auburn’s Will Holland saved lefthander Bailey Horn from allowing three consecutive batters to reach base.
But following a balk by Horn, which allowed Busch and Sabato to move up to second and third base, respectively, Tar Heels third baseman Ike Freeman cranked a two-run single to left-center field to score the only runs of the game. It became clear that, much like Auburn lefthander Jack Owen the day before, Horn was getting off to a rough start.
After Horn dealt North Carolina catcher Brandon Martorano a 3-0 count, he finished the inning with two balls, three strikes, an infield fly and a routine fly ball. At that point, Horn’s early nerves seemed to settle and the game became a pitchers' duel that caused North Carolina to leave so many runners stranded.
The Auburn pitching staff allowed eight hits and nine walks but held UNC to 3-for-20 with runners on base and 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
“We say all the time, 'Don’t rely on offense,” Freeman said. “Pitching and defense wins games. We put pressure on them, we also left a lot of guys on base, but our pitching staff is solid.”
Auburn’s strategy of starting with a lefthander, then bringing in righthander Ryan Watson and closing the game with lefthander Elliott Anderson successfully threw off the Tar Heel offense.
But Busch and Sabato had done the damage at the top of the lineup, however. They have impressed Auburn coach Butch Thompson over the last two days.
“Busch and Sabato reminded of a couple other tandems, the dynamic duos of (Austin) Martin and (JJ) Bleday for Vanderbilt and (Kyle) McCann and (Tristin) English for Georgia Tech,” Thompson said. “Just two special guys.”
Sabato went 3-for-5 with a pair of runs and two RBIs in Game 1 of the series, but he couldn’t manage a hit in the second game. Thompson mentioned his mentality regarding Sabato was to pitch around him but never intentionally walk him. That strategy came to life when Sabato went 0-for-3 with two walks, two foul outs and fly out to center field.
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North Carolina center fielder Dylan Harris also did well at the plate in the first game of the series, hitting 2-for-4 with a run scored. In Game 2, Harris went 1-for-5 with a strikeout and no walks, unable to get much going offensively.
Outfielders Dylan Enwiller and Dallas Tessar each left four runners on base to round out the total of 14 left on base for North Carolina. However, Tessar might have made up for his offensive struggles with a more important defensive play. In the bottom of the third, Tessar made a catch in foul territory that ended with him diving over a fence and into the Auburn bullpen down the right field line for the first out of the inning.
North Carolina will certainly look to be more successful capitalizing on any opportunities they’re given at the plate in the Game 3 against the Tigers. The two teams will meet Monday at 1 p.m. ET for the final game of the series with the winner advancing to Omaha and the College World Series.