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Baseball: Yellow Jackets Narrowly Lose Series to #9 North Carolina

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Some late-game heroics on Saturday didn’t translate to Sunday.

Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Georgia Tech’s schedule continues to get more difficult, as the #9 North Carolina Tar Heels (13-4, 2-1 ACC) visited Russ Chandler Stadium this weekend. Having played all their games at home thus far, UNC was coming off of a really good week where they won two out of three against #7 UVA and knocked off Maryland on Tuesday. The Jackets have done very well against the Tar Heels in recent years, winning six of the last seven series, and hoped to continue that trend.

Friday: #7 North Carolina 6, Georgia Tech 5

W: J.B. Bukauskas (3-0) | L: Xzavion Curry (3-2) | S: Josh Hiatt (6)

Xzavion Curry (3-1, 3.60 ERA) went against projected first-round draft pick J. B. Bukauskas (2-0, 0.69 ERA), a junior righty for North Carolina. Last year in Chapel Hill, Bukauskas had pitched 8 innings of 4-hit shutout baseball to lead UNC to their lone win of the weekend against Georgia Tech. In 2015 in Atlanta, he had given up 3 runs on 5 hits in 5.1 innings for a no-decision.

The Tar Heels scored two in the 2nd, spurred in part by an error from Austin Wilhite. He mishandled a relay from Murray while trying to get the base runner at home after a double from Cody Roberts. The error allowed Roberts to advance to 3rd, enabling him to later score on a sacrifice fly. The Jackets answered in the bottom of the inning when Ryan Peurifoy drove in Trevor Craport and Kel Johnson with a clutch two-out single.

Bukauskas was a strikeout machine, fanning 8 Jackets in the first three innings, and got the lead back on a solo homer by Tyler Lynn in the 4th. Another solo homer from Kyle Datres in the 6th pushed the UNC lead to 4-2, but Joey Bart and Trevor Craport went back-to-back in the bottom of the frame to tie the game at 4.

After a leadoff single in the 7th, Curry turned the ball over to Jared Datoc. Though Datoc pitched well, the inherited runner scored from second base on a two-out single to center by Zack Gahagan. After another single by Kyle Datres, Coleman Poje saved at least one run when he made a diving play for the third out of the inning.

After Tech went down in order in the 7th, Zac Ryan came in and quickly set down UNC quietly in the 8th. Unfortunately, the 9th wasn’t as easy, as Ryan returned and gave up a solo home run to Logan Warmouth, giving the Tar Heels an insurance run and extending the lead to 6-4. It was the fifth solo homer of the night and turned out to be crucial.

UNC’s Josh Hiatt returned to the game in the bottom of the ninth after striking out two in a quiet bottom of the eighth. Georgia Tech led off with a Craport double and Johnson walk, but Craport was thrown out trying to steal 3rd and Poje struck out. Coach Hall said in his post game interview that “I gave the wrong sign to Prince” without really explaining, but the rally was severely impaired. Keenan Innis added a clutch RBI single and Ryan Peurifoy reached on an error, but Austin Wilhite ended his frustrating night by striking out to end the game. Georgia Tech was left with a heartbreaking 6-5 loss, and Xzavion Curry took a tough loss after 6.0 well-pitched innings.

Saturday: Georgia Tech 4, #7 North Carolina 2 (12 Innings)

W: Zac Ryan (2-0) | L: Rodney Hutchison Jr. (2-1)

The Jackets sent their normal Saturday starter, RS freshman Jonathan Hughes (1-0, 3.38 ERA) to face Tar Heels freshman Luca Dalatri (2-2, 2.76 ERA).

Hughes had trouble with his control throughout his short outing (needing 79 pitches to get through 4.0 innings), but only allowed a single run on a solo home run to lead off the 3rd from Michael Busch. Hughes avoided further damage when the Jackets turned their second double play of the day with runners on the corners.

Down 1-0, the Jackets battled back in the bottom of the 3rd. Ryan Peurifoy scored on an RBI double off the left field wall by Wade Bailey, who later scored on a sacrifice fly by Trevor Craport. With that, Georgia Tech took a 2-1 lead -- their first lead of the weekend.

Hughes continued to struggle with his control, hitting a batter in the 4th and leading off the 5th by giving up his fourth and fifth walks of the outing. That prompted a mound visit from the trainer, but Hughes stayed in the game. After he walked the next man, the trainer returned to the mound, this time with Coach Hall, as Hughes’ day was over. Robert Winborne came in to try and preserve the slim lead. He did so with a gutsy performance, eventually scoring a groundout that ended the inning with the bases full of Tar Heels. Unfortunately, the scoreless streak wouldn’t go on any further -- UNC’s Tyler Lynn led off the 6th inning with his second solo homer of the weekend to tie the game at 2-2.

The game didn’t see any more baserunners until the bottom of the 7th, when Ryan Peurifoy hit a two-out double and Wilhite walked, but Bailey struck out to end the threat with the game still tied. A one-out UNC single ended Winborne’s day in the 8th, as Jay Shadday came in and forced a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. Dalatri’s start continued into the bottom of the 8th, when a leadoff single by Craport was followed by a trio of fly-outs that left the tie intact. Jared Datoc came on to pitch the 9th, when Peurifoy made a leaping catch to rob Brandon Riley of at least a double, preserving the tie.

Austin Bergner came into pitch for the Tar Heels in the bottom of the 9th. The Jackets missed a great chance when Austin Wilhite grounded right to the 3rd baseman for an inning-ending 5-3 double play with two on and only one out. Extra innings were required for the second straight Saturday.

After Datoc pitched a 1-2-3 top of the 10th, Bailey walked and moved to 2nd on a sacrifice bunt from Craport. The Tar Heels intentionally walked Joey Bart to bring Kel Johnson up with two on and one out, and UNC brought in Rodney Hutchison to pitch. Neither Johnson or Chase Murray could reach as the game continued.

The 11th got dangerous quickly for Georgia Tech, as the Tar Heels got started with a single and hit batsman. Datoc managed a strikeout and deep fly ball out to center before Zac Ryan came in with runners on the corners and two outs. Ryan got a strikeout to end the inning, with the game still tied. The bottom of the 11th finished the same as the 9th, when Wilhite again grounded into a double play with two runners on.

At this point I had to begin again on a blank scoresheet since mine was full. Ryan retired the Tar Heels in order in their 12th. In the bottom, Tech’s leadoff batter reached for the third straight inning with a Wade Bailey single. After Craport struck out and Bart flew out to shortstop, Kel Johnson came up to face Hutchison for the 2nd time. He had struck out in the 10th, but this time he hit a monster blast over the right field wall for a 4-2 walk-off win for Georgia Tech!

In the post-game interview on WREK, Johnson said nothing in the world is like the feeling when you know you’ve hit the ball that hard. It was Kel’s 28th homer as a Jacket, but first walk-off. He was met by a delirious crowd of his teammates at home. Zac Ryan got his second win of the year after setting down all 4 batters he faced.

Sunday: #7 North Carolina 7, Georgia Tech 4

W: Brett Daniels (1-0) | L: Zac Ryan (2-1) | S: Josh Hiatt (7)

Jay Shadday (1-0, 0.96 ERA), who had only thrown one pitch to get an inning-ending double play on Saturday, got his first career start against junior righty Jason Morgan (2-0, 3.2 ERA).

Both team left runners at 1st and 3rd in the first inning. A scary moment occurred when Kel Johnson was hit square in the back of his batting helmet and went down hard, but he remained in the game. It was fortunate that he was the DH so that he had some extra time to catch his bearings afterwards.

The Jackets struck first in the 3rd when Trevor Craport reached on an error and scored on a double by Joey Bart. After a fly out, Kyle McCann hit one over the right field wall to put Tech up 3-0. UNC brought in Trevor Gay to pitch afterwards, and the Jackets were unable to do any further damage in the frame.

The Jackets scored again the 4th when Austin Wilhite scored on a Trevor Craport RBI single. Brett Daniels came on to pitch for the Tar Heels and ended the threat with a pair of strikeouts. The Jackets threatened again in the 5th with runners at 2nd and 3rd with only one out, but couldn’t score. This was the turning point of the game, in retrospect.

Despite only 5 innings from the starter, Micah Carpenter relieved Shadday for the 6th. Although Shadday had struck out the side twice and had only thrown 74 pitches, keep in mind that he had also thrown 5 innings Tuesday night against Oklahoma. Carpenter was greeted with a leadoff triple off the center field wall by Logan Warmoth and a home run over the right field wall by Ashton McGee to make it 4-2 and end his outing quickly. Burton Dulaney came in and recorded a strikeout before getting into trouble of his own by hitting a batter and walking another. A wild pitch advanced the runners, enabling the Tar Heels’ third run to score on a groundout. Nick Wilhite came on in relief but walked his batter, so Jake Lee came in and threw one pitch for a fly ball out to end the inning and strand a pair of Tar Heels.

After a quick three outs in the bottom of the 6th for Georgia Tech, Lee came back for the 7th. He put two on before yielding to Robert Winborne with one out. Winborne got out of the inning with two groundouts.

After another scoreless frame for Georgia Tech in the 7th, Zac Ryan came in for the 8th with the Jackets still leading 4-3. Things went bad quickly when a bloop double and a throwing error enabled UNC to tie the game, with the go-ahead run on 2nd and no outs. After a sacrifice bunt moved the runner to 3rd, a sacrifice fly gave the Tar Heels a 5-4 lead.

The Jackets again had a good chance in the bottom of the 8th with a two-out double followed by a walk and wild pitch, but Josh Hiatt came in to pitch for the Tar Heels and got Bart to hit a high fly ball that the strong wind kept in for the third out with Tech still trailing by one.

Things got a lot worse in the top of the 9th when UNC got two insurance runs, aided by two uncharacteristic errors by Craport. (UNC’s final four runs were all unearned.)

Tech came to bat in the bottom of the ninth trailing 7-4 and again benefitted when the Tar Heels’ center fielder lost the ball in the sun for a double by Kel Johnson. After Craport walked, Poje came up to the plate representing the tying run for the Jackets. Unfortunately, he struck out, and Peurifoy and Murray followed suit to end the game. Despite an early lead, the Yellow Jackets lost the rubber game of the series 7-4. Zac Ryan took his first loss of the season.

The difference in this game was the fact that UNC relief pitchers shut down error-aided rallies using strikeouts, while the Yellow Jackets’ relief pitchers did not.

Bottom Line

This was an awfully disappointing weekend, salvaged only by the extra inning victory Saturday. Georgia Tech lost its fourth straight Sunday game and failed to carry the momentum of a Saturday extra innings win over into the rubber game. The best news is that Shadday looks to be the Sunday starter and can probably go past five innings on a full week of rest. The bad news is that the lack of reliable relief pitching is haunting the Yellow Jackets lately, although several guys are starting to look solid.

The schedule isn’t getting easier any time soon, with Auburn coming to town on Tuesday (fresh off of a sweep of Florida) and a trip to Winston-Salem to face Wake Forest next weekend. The Jackets are just 2-4 in the ACC, tied for fifth in the Coastal.