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Pitt baseball defeats UNC 5-3 in ACC Tournament Opener

Katie Meyers/Pitt Athletics

In a crucial first game of the ACC Baseball Tournament, Pitt took down North Carolina, 5 to 3. In a round-robin pool-play format, the bottom seed has to go 2-0 to move on and avoid any tiebreakers making Tuesday night’s bout a must-win for the Panthers.

After trading zeros to start the game, Pitt took the early lead with a run in the second inning on a Brock Franks fielder's choice. Franks hit a soft ground ball to the Carolina first baseman with runners on second and third that would typically not be enough to score a run, but Brent Centracchio hesitated when he saw David Yanni surprisingly head for the plate and his throw was not in time.

With a new lead, Myers walked the leadoff hitter but got back-to-back flyouts leaving a runner on first and two outs. Max Riemer hit a hard fly ball to right-center that Nico Popa misplayed and scooted by the Panther right fielder. A quick backup by Jordan Anderson started what would end up being the smoothest relay with David Yanni I’ve seen in a long time gunning down the would-be tying run at the plate.

Pitt starter Mitch Myers and Carolina reliever Gage Gillian both cruised through innings three and four before the Panthers extended their lead in the top half of the fifth. After a Sky Duff single and a Kyle Hess double, Pitt plated both runners with a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly, and the lead extended to 3-0.

While holding the Heels scoreless, Myers had scattered his fair share of hits through the first four innings. Toeing the rubber with a 3-0 lead, Myers struck out back-to-back Carolina hitters after allowing a leadoff single. Two straight singles loaded the bases and sent Mike Bell to the mound for a conversation with his starter.

Veteran right-hander Chase Smith started warming in the fourth and was ready to go, but the right-handed sidewinder was not an ideal matchup for the left-handed three-hitter, Caleb Roberts. Bell opted to leave his starter in to face Roberts and Roberts made him pay as he plated two on a hard-hit single. Myers was then lifted and Chase Smith ended the inning with a ground out and the Pitt lead had shrunk to one.

A leadoff triple by Bryce Hulett was exactly the start Pitt needed with the lead trimmed to one. Looking like a long ball off the bat, the night air held it up and it caromed off the right-field fence and away from both UNC outfielders. Riley Wash struck out swinging and Brock Franks came to the plate with the insurance run just ninety feet away and only one away. Not wanting to strand the runner with a strikeout, Franks swung at the first pitch and skied it to right field. Tar Heel right fielder Caleb Roberts made the routine catch and threw an absolute dart to home plate beating Hulett by a few steps and ending the threat.

Quick work was made of the Heels in the bottom of the sixth and both teams were held scoreless in the seventh as Pitt went into the eighth inning with a one-run lead.

Kyle Hess quickly walked to open up the penultimate frame and two pitches later Ron Washington Jr. elevated and celebrated with a deep fly to left-center and Pitt’s lead was again three.

With a three-run lead and a tired bullpen, Chase Smith returned for the eighth. Smith’s eighth inning appearance was short-lived as he was lifted for closer Jordan McCrum after a hit by pitch and walk while not recording an out.

Pitt’s most reliable reliever, McCrum’s recent struggles were not enough to deter Mike Bell from bringing him in for the game’s biggest moment. A three-pitch strikeout was followed by a walk and Carolina had bases loaded and one out with freshman catcher Tomas Frick at the plate. Clearly amped up, Frick swung at a high fastball on the first pitch and hit a slow grounder to third baseman Sky Duff. Duff traded a run for an out and the lead shrunk to two, 5-3. With two men in scoring position and two away, Max Riemer and Jordan McCrum battled for six pitches before McCrum found the inside corner and ended the Carolina threat.

Pitt went 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth and McCrum returned to face 9-1-2 in the bottom of the ninth. McCrum was visibly fatigued in the ninth. With his velocity down from to upper 80’s from his typical low to mid 90’s, McCrum struggled to find the zone.

The Panther closer settled down and got a fly out to start the inning, but followed the early out with a four-pitch walk and Carolina’s best hitter, Justice Thompson, at the plate. Locked back in, McCrum found the zone with two early 91 mph fastballs but yanked a fastball well outside and the runner advanced to second on the wild pitch. With a 2-2 count, McCrum painted the outside corner with a fastball, and down went Thompson. After scattering a few fastballs, McCrum forced a lazy foul ball to left field that Kyle Hess ran down and that would do it.

The supermoon wasn’t the only bright spot on a beautiful night in the Queen City as Pitt stopped their skid and won a crucial opening game of the ACC Tournament, 5-3.

Pitt returns to action against North Carolina State on Thursday at 7 p.m. on Regional Sports Networks (At&T SportsNet in Pittsburgh).