Panthers keep ACC Title hopes alive with 5-3 win over UNC

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Alanna Reid | Staff Photographer

Pitt came into their ACC Baseball Tournament slate on Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina against the North Carolina Tarheels as losers in eight of their last 10 to finish their regular season. As the No. 10 seed, the lowest seed in their pool, a loss would send the Panthers back to Pittsburgh empty handed.

By Dalton Coppola, Sports Editor

The Panthers kicked off their ACC Baseball Tournament slate on Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina against the No. 6 UNC Tar Heels. Despite the game being played at a neutral site, the Panthers would serve as the away team in the game. As the No. 10 seed, the lowest seed in their pool, a loss would send the Panthers back to Pittsburgh empty-handed.

But Tuesday would not mark the end of the Panthers’ run at their first ACC Title as Pitt defeated the Tar Heels 5-3. Head coach Mike Bell displayed a great deal of pride in his team after taking down the sixth ranked team in the conference.

“Obviously, great ballgame, really gotta tip your cap to [UNC],” Bell said. “Very talented team up and down the lineup … a great win for our program, a great win for our guys. I couldn’t be more excited for them.”

Bell opted to send pitching ace and junior Mitch Myers to the bump for the bout against the Tar Heels and he was dominant for much of the early frames, delivering four innings of shutout baseball. Although it didn’t seem Myers had his best stuff Tuesday night, it certainly got the job done in the early going and allowed the Panthers to strike first.

“We had a gutsy performance from Mitch on four days [of] rest,” Bell said. “We knew we had him, but we knew we only had a limited pitch count with him.”

The Panthers strung together a couple of solid at-bats drawing two walks in the second inning against Tar Heel sophomore starting pitcher Connor Ollio. The sophomore, who was defeated by the Panthers earlier in the season, struggled to locate his fastball and UNC head coach Scott Forbes had seen enough and pulled Ollio mid-at-bat after allowing both runners to advance to scoring position without surrendering a hit after a series of wild pitches and walks.

Pitt was able to capitalize on Ollio’s miscues as sophomore shortstop Brock Franks squibbed a dribbler off the inside of his bat to Tar Heel first baseman graduate student Brett Centracchio, who hesitated momentarily before throwing home, delivering the ball too late. The Panthers were on the board early to take an early 1-0 lead.

North Carolina answered with a threat of their own in the bottom of the second. After a leadoff walk, the Tar Heels were seeing Myers’ pitches well, lacing a couple balls deep into the outfield, but the Panther outfield refused to relinquish a hit.

But with two outs and a man on first, first-year designated hitter Max Riemer lined a ball deep into the right-center gap and first-year third baseman Mac Horvath rounded third and headed for home. It seemed Horvath was home free and would score with ease to tie the game but a near perfect relay throw from redshirt senior David Yanni cut Horvath down at the plate to preserve the Panther lead.

Both offenses remained stagnant until the fifth inning as both squads pushed across two runs. Sophomore third baseman Sky Duff led off the top of the inning with a single and advanced to third on a double off the bat of sophomore outfielder Kyler Hess, setting up junior designated hitter Ron Washington Jr. to deliver some insurance for the Panthers. But Washington didn’t have to take the bat off of his shoulder for a run to come across — a wild pitch allowed Duff to cross home plate, which Washington promptly followed up with a sacrifice fly to bring in Hess from third to put the Panthers up 3-0.

Myers’ early game dominance came to an end in the fifth as the Tar Heels strung together three two-out singles, the third of which being a two RBI knock courtesy of sophomore outfielder Caleb Roberts. Bell made a visit to the mound, with the option to make a call to the bullpen, but opted to leave Myers in the game to face the top of the order. After surrendering two runs, Bell made the call to junior relief pitcher Chase Smith.

It seemed Pitt would answer the Tar Heel offensive attack with a rally of their own after junior first baseman Bryce Hulett drove a ball off of the right field wall and pulled into third with a leadoff triple. But the Panthers allowed the prime opportunity to tack on a run go to the wayside. 

Junior catcher Riley Wash went down on strikes, which Franks followed up with a hard-hit line drive to right field. Hulett tagged-up and tried to score, but was cut down at the plate by a perfect throw from Smith — the same player that had just driven in two runs himself in the inning prior.

It seemed as if the momentum had shifted to the Tar Heels’ side. Until Washington launched a ball well over the left field wall for a two-run homerun in the top of the eighth inning that caught the eye of everyone — including his head coach.

“I felt like he hit the ball into the other state, it went so far,” Bell said.

The swing evoked plenty of emotions from the Panther dugout, as Washington’s teammates climbed over the dugout railing to greet him at home plate. The junior emphatically stomped on the plate, confirming the Panthers had claimed a 5-2 lead.

Smith, who had been masterful through two and a third innings of work surrendering just one hit and no runs in a pressure-packed performance, ran out of gas in the bottom of the eighth. The Tar Heels put runners on first and second after Smith hit a batter and walked another and Bell made the call to his closer, senior transfer Jordan McCrum.

McCrum entered with runners in scoring position and no outs and managed to escape, only allowing a single run and striking out two, doing his job. The transfer returned to the bump in the ninth looking to keep whatever chance the Panthers had at an ACC title alive. 

Despite issuing a walk in the inning and not seeming to have great control in the final frame, McCrum dialed it in when he had to and shut the Tar Heels down to secure the win — making sure to turn towards the Tar Heel dugout with his index finger pressed to his lips as to silence the North Carolina fans in attendance after recording the game’s final out, something Washington felt was electrifying after playing in an intense game in front of a crowd dominated by Tar Heel fans.

“That was pretty cool to watch,” Washington said. “We are in North Carolina … they definitely had the home field advantage. But our Pitt fans, there were plenty of them there and we heard them all night.”

The victory is the first of two must-win ball games for the Panthers, an idea that Washington says won’t change the way the team approaches their next game against one of the hottest teams in the No. 3 NC State Wolfpack.

“We know these games mean a lot,” Washington said. “But we don’t go outside of our routine. We still go about [these games] how we go about every other game.”

The Panthers will look to move on to the semifinal round with a victory on Thursday against the red-hot NC State Wolfpack. First pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will air on ACCNX.

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