Ashburn, Va (March 21, 2015) – Saturday (March 7th’s) opening act of the UNC-Duke showdown took place on the diamond, where JB Bukauskas’s pitching and three hits from Logan Warmoth led the 11th ranked Tar Heels to a 6-2 win over the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill. Carolina opens ACC play 2-0 and moves to 10-3 overall. Duke falls to 0-2 in the conference with their second straight loss, and their overall record dips to 10-3.
Plenty of fans came out to Boshamer Stadium to show their support for the Tar Heels, but one could argue that there were just as many pro scouts in attendance trying to get a good look at the day’s pitching matchup.
The Blue Devils sent 6’6″ junior Michael Matuella, considered by some to be the top pitching prospect in college baseball, to face-off with UNC’s own prize recruit,Bukauskas.
Security must have been out on vacation, because both men brought in cannons: their right arms.
Bukauskas’ fastball touched 96 on the radar gun, just a tad faster than Matuella’s, which sat right at 94 in the initial portion of the game.
The freshman was caught in a bit of a jam in the bottom of the second after Duke loaded the bases with just one out, but escaped by getting Blue Devil shortstop Kevin Koplove to ground into a double play, ending the inning.
Other than that initial scare, JB Bukauskas (2-1) was money, stealing the spotlight for himself.
He followed Friday’s 12 strikeout performance from Zac Gallen with his own masterpiece. Six scoreless innings and eight strikeouts, while giving up just four hits easily represented the best start of his career. At one point in the game he retired twelve hitters in a row; a streak snapped by Duke center-fielder Evan Dougherty’s two-out single in the top of the sixth.
Coach Mike Fox has been extremely impressed with Bukauskas’ composure in big moments, saying after the game that “He doesn’t let anything phase him. He’s just the same, it’s like he has no heartbeat, and that’s good. That’s good when you’re pitching.”
Matuella, on the other hand, delivered a solid, but short, outing as he recovers from forearm tightness that has plagued him over the past couple weeks. Duke head coach Chris Pollard pulled his star after he threw three scoreless innings and gave up one hit, a single to UNC third baseman Logan Warmoth.
“He throws 95 just like JB, he throws gas, so I was just trying to see it as long as I could,” Warmoth says about facing off with the big righty, “I took two fastballs that were good pitches, but he came back with another one, so I just put my bat on it. He supplied the power, so I barely had to hit it.”
Reliever Mitch Stallings, a freshman, came on to pitch the fourth inning for the Blue Devils, something the Tar Heel bats really seemed to appreciate. Landon Lassiter hit a lead-off double, and was immediately sent home by Tyler Ramirez’s RBI triple in the next at-bat. Ramirez scored soon after on a sacrifice fly by first baseman Adrian Chacon, and later in the same frame Warmoth’s second hit of the day plated Brian Miller–handing Carolina a 3-0 lead through four.
This seemed to change the flow of the game in the eyes of Carolina’s young pitching prodigy.
“I thought we battled well against him, but as soon as he came out I thought that was a weight off our shoulders and I wouldn’t say we let our guard down, but it kind of loosened things up, and we started, I think, playing a little bit better,” Bukauskas says.
Replacing Bukauskas to begin the seventh was one of the Tar Heels’ own freshman relievers, Hansen Butler, who was tasked with protecting the three-run lead. Unfortunately for Butler, the Blue Devils ended his outing quickly, loading the bases with no outs after two base-hits and a walk.
It was the reliable senior, Trevor Kelley, that got Carolina out of the seventh cleanly with a strikeout, a spectacular catch on a line drive hit right back at him, and a ground-out earned by a diving stop by first baseman Zack Gahagan. This sequence played out to a loud chorus of cheers from the Tar Heel faithful, a group worried that the Blue Devils had found a sign of life.
Kelley’s heroics must have motivated the UNC offense to give their bullpen some more breathing room, because they came out in their half of the seventh and added two more runs. Gahagan, a freshman, tripled in Alex Raburn and fellow first-year Brian Miller singled home Gahagan, all with two outs.
Duke finally broke through off of Kelley in the eighth when catcher Mike Rosenfeld smashed a double to left center-field, scoring two runs and cutting their deficit back to three. Nick Raquet appeared out of the Tar Heel bullpen and took the ball from Kelley to record the last out of the inning.
That would not be enough to stop the Tar Heels from winning their fourth game in a row.
Carolina tacked on an additional run in the eighth before Duke’s final chance in the ninth against UNC’s current closer Trent Thornton. Thornton wouldn’t need it, as he pitched a scoreless ninth and clinched the series win for Coach Fox and his club.