UNC baseball upends No. 2 Virginia, advances to ACC semifinal, solidifies NCAA standing

Robert Willett/

The University of North Carolina baseball team entered ACC Championship week with a handful of questions, chief among them: Where did it stand in the NCAA selection committee’s hierarchy of potential at-large teams.

The answer: If the Tar Heels keep on rolling like they have this week, they won’t have to worry about an at-large bid at all.

Seventh-seeded UNC scored first, and scored more often than No. 2 Virginia, erupting for three separate three-run innings while relying on a pitcher with a history of success against the Cavaliers to pull away for a 10-2 win on Goodmon Field at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, keeping alive the Tar Heels’ hope for an ACC title and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

After posting a tournament-opening 11-5 win over Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels turned Thursday to starter Jake Knapp. While his season numbers weren’t lights-out — 4-3 with a 5.08 ERA — Knapp had one of his better outings of the season against Virginia back in March. In that game, he issued four walks, but gave up only three hits and struck out four in 4 1/3 shutout innings.

Knapp replicated his strong outing Thursday, going 5 2/3 innings, allowing just two runs — one earned — on five hits, with two walks and five strikeouts against 24 batters in a Virginia lineup riddled with players hitting over .350.

Virginia starter Connelly Early lasted just four innings against a scrappy Tar Heels lineup, allowing four runs on three hits and four walks while striking out two before giving way to a host of relievers, who surrendered the remaining three runs, all in the seventh.

The Heels are playing this week without star center fielder Vance Honeycutt, who was ruled out by the school before the tournament began with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury.

Even without him in the lineup, UNC has now scored 21 runs in two games this week, advancing to Saturday’s semifinal against the winner of Pool C, either No. 3 Clemson or No. 6 Boston College.

The Heels put pressure on Virginia immediately, without the benefit of a hit. Mac Horvath, the second hitter of the game, walked, stole second and scampered home after a sharply hit ball off the bat of Jackson Van De Brake forced Cavaliers second baseman Henry Godbout into an error. The ball bounded into center field, and Horvath gave the Heels a 1-0 lead.

While the Cavaliers managed a few scattered hits in the first three innings, it was an oddly symmetrical play that helped Virginia plate its first run. Ethan O’Donnell hit a slow roller to second, where Van De Brake whiffed on the scoop. Godbout, on second after a single and a stolen base, crossed the plate to even the score at 1-1.

UNC took the lead back in the top of the fourth, when Hunter Stokely laced a single into right to score catcher Tomas Frick. Alberto Osuna then ripped a double off the wall in left, plating Johnny Castagnozzi, and Colby Wilkerson lofted a sacrifice fly to right to score Stokely.

Virginia got one back in the sixth, on an Ethan Anderson home run to right with one out, cutting the Heels’ lead to 4-2. Knapp retired the next batter before being replaced by Dalton Pence.

In the seventh, UNC forged further ahead when Frick singled home Horvath and Wilkerson. Patrick Alvarez followed with a single to score Van De Brake, pushing the Tar Heels’ lead to 7-2.

UNC tacked on three more in the eighth on a three-run double off the bat of Frick, who just missed a grand slam off the left-center field wall.