CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Freshman righthander Trent Thornton came out of the bullpen to record his eighth save of the season as No. 1 North Carolina (54-8) held off a comeback by the Tigers (30-29) to remain undefeated in the NCAA Regionals with an 8-5 victory over Towson at Boshamer Stadium on Saturday night.
The Tar Heels, who have won seven games in a row, are now one victory away from winning the Chapel Hill Regional and advancing to the Super Regionals next weekend. Towson, which had its five-game winning streak snapped, will play Florida Atlantic in an elimination game at Boshamer Stadium on Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m.
The winner of the Towson-Florida Atlantic game will face the Tar Heels at 6:00 p.m. in what could be the regional championship game.
Junior lefthander Kent Emanuel was virtually unhittable through the first five innings as the Tar Heels built a 5-0 lead. Through the first five innings, Emanuel faced the minimum 15 batters. He allowed a single to sophomore centerfielder Richie Blosser in the third inning and a single to third baseman Zach Fisher in the fourth inning. But, he immediately picked both runners off base.
“Give credit to Kent Emanuel,” said Towson Coach Mike Gottlieb. “He gave us absolutely nothing for five innings. He was throwing three pitches for strikes and he made us look bad a number of times. He did a great job mixing his pitches and got the big outs when he needed them.
“One of the biggest outs he got was in the sixth inning when we had two runners on base and two outs with Kurt Wertz at the plate. He struck him out on an off-speed pitch that froze Kurt. It was a big out at the time because a base hit by Wertz makes it a much closer game.”
Senior first baseman Cody Stubbs gave the Tar Heels a 1-0 lead in the second inning when he blasted a solo home run over the rightfield fence. It was the only hit that junior righthander Brandon Gonnella allowed over the first three innings.
In the fourth inning, Gonnella ran into trouble. Freshman Landon Lassiter, the Tar Heels’ designated hitter, opened the inning by drawing a walk. After he reached second base on a wild pitch, Gonnella retired senior third baseman Colin Moran on a fly ball to rightfield. When freshman rightfielder Skye Bolt also drew a walk, North Carolina had two runners on base with one out.
Lassiter and Bolt moved into scoring position when Stubbs grounded out to second base. However, sophomore shortstop Michael Russell gave the Tar Heels a 3-0 lead when he drilled a two-run single into left field. After junior catcher Brian Holberton followed with a single, senior catcher Andrew Parker came up with another big play. While Gonnella was pitching to sophomore second baseman Mike Zolk, he picked Holberton off first base to end the rally.
In the fifth inning, the Tar Heels extended their lead to 4-0. Zolk led off the inning with a double to rightfield. After junior leftfielder Jordan Parks reached base on a bunt single, the Tar Heels had runners at the corners. Senior centerfielder Chaz Frank lifted a foul ball down the left field line where sophomore leftfielder Peter Bowles made a sliding catch. Zolk alertly tagged up on the play and scored just seconds ahead of Bowles’ throw to the plate. After Lassiter singled, Moran grounded into a double play to end the inning as the Tigers turned their 80th double play of the season.
With two outs in the sixth inning, Russell singled through the left side. When Holberton doubled down the right field line, Russell came around to score from first base. Zolk grounded out to first base.
Emanuel took a two-out shutout into the sixth inning. With one out, Blosser doubled to left centerfield. After junior shortstop Hunter Bennett struck out. Fisher drew a walk to put runners on first and second. Junior second baseman Pat Fitzgerald followed with a single to right field, driving in the first run of the game for the Tigers. But, Emanuel struck out junior designated hitter on a 3-2 pitch to end the inning.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Tigers staged another rally against Emanuel. Bowles led off the seventh with a double to left center field. After junior rightfielder Dominic Fratantuono struck out, sophomore first baseman Brendan Butler lined a single to centerfield, scoring Bowles to make it a 5-2 lead. But, Emanuel got out of the jam by getting Parker to ground into double play to end the uprising.
With their lead trimmed to 5-2, the Tar Heels added two more runs in the eighth inning. Stubbs led off with a single, his second base hit of the game. Russell came through another clutch hit and doubled down the leftfield line, driving in Stubbs to give North Carolina a 6-2 advantage. Russell reached third base when Holberton grounded out to second base for the first out of the inning. With Russell on third base, the Tigers pulled their infield in to try and prevent another run from scoring. However, when Zolk hit a high chopper to Bennett at shortstop, Russell was able to score while Bennett threw Zolk out at first base.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Tigers continued to show the resilience they displayed all season. With one out, Bennett doubled to rightfield. After Fisher drew a walk, Fitzgerald was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Wertz. On a 2-0 pitch from Emanuel, Wertz singled to rightfield, driving in two runs to pull Towson to within 7-4. A sacrifice fly by Bowles enabled Fitzgerald to score and cut the lead to 7-5. When Fratantuono singled to centerfield, the Tigers had the tying runs on base.
At that point, Coach Mike Fox went to the bullpen and brought in his ace closer, Thornton. He pitched out of the jam by retiring Butler on a fly ball to centerfield.
In the ninth inning, the Tar Heels added a run off relief pitcher Nick Cioffi. With one out, Lassiter singled to rightfield. A single by Moran enabled Lassiter to reach third base. When Bolt hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield, Lassiter scored to give the Tar Heels an 8-5 lead. Cioffi finally retired the side by getting Russell on a fly ball to centerfield.
In the bottom of the ninth, Thornton retired the Tigers in order to prevent any comeback.
“Obviously, for us, it was a case of too little, too late,” added Gottlieb. “This is not a game we should have won – but it is a game we could have won. If we could have gotten one or two hits in the right spot, we might still be playing.”
Emanuel, now 11-3 on the season, earned the win for the Tar Heels. He pitched 7.2 innings and allowed five runs on nine hits. He walked two and had eight strikeouts. Thornton picked up the final four outs of the game to record his eighth save.
UNC outhit the Tigers by a 13-10 margin. Russell led the Tar Heels with three hits, two runs scored and three runs batted in. Lassiter had a pair of hits and scored two runs while Stubbs went two-for-four with a home run and two runs scored. Holbertson also had two hits and drove in a run.
Gonnella suffered his fifth loss of the season for the Tigers. He pitched 7.2 innings and allowed seven runs on 11 hits with three walks and one strikeout. Two of his walks were very costly as they led to a pair of Carolina runs in the fourth inning when the Tar Heels took a 3-0 lead.
Blosser led the Tigers with three hits and scored a run. He is batting .714 in the Tigers’ two NCAA Tournament games. He was the only Tiger with more than one hit. Fisher had a single and drew the only two walks that Emanuel allowed.
TIGER TALES: Wertz’s two-run single lifted his seasonal RBI total to 65, the top mark on the team … When Fitzgerald singled in the sixth, it marked the 29th consecutive that he reached base … Fitzgerald, who now has a .990 fielding percentage, played a solid defensive game with two putouts and five assists … He also started the double play in the fifth inning … Since the Tigers played the game on June 1, it was the first Towson University intercollegiate athletic event ever played in the month of June.
With the win, North Carolina beat Towson for the 13th game in a row … The Tar Heels lead the all-time series, 26-2.
Sophomore righthander Paul Beers will try to keep the Tigers’ season alive on Sunday afternoon when the Tigers face Florida Atlantic at 1:00 p.m. … Florida Atlantic beat Canisius on Saturday afternoon to remain alive in the NCAA regional.