GREENSBORO, N.C. --- North Carolina advanced to Pool B of the 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Baseball Championship with a 4-3 win over NC State Tuesday at NewBridge Bank Park. Trent Thornton, in his first relief outing of 2014, retired the final five batters to close out another wild encounter between the two rivals. Michael Russell had a double and a triple to lead an eight-hit attack for UNC, which plays Florida State Wednesday night at 7.
Carolina led 4-1 after three innings and four pitchers combined for 5.2 scoreless innings in relief of Reilly Hovis to close it out. Tar Heel relievers were in high-leverage situations all afternoon, as Zach Rice, Trevor Kelley, Spencer Trayner and Thornton inherited a total of 10 baserunners and stranded them all.
NC State (32-23) got off to a dream start against Hovis when Trea Turner ended a 10-pitch at-bat with a triple off the wall in left center. Two batters later it was 1-0 when Brett Austin singled to center to score Turner. But Hovis escaped by getting Andrew Knizner to hit into a 1-6-3 double play to end the inning, and the Carolina offense got going in the second.
After retiring the side in order in the first, NC State starter Eric Peterson gave up a tape-measure home run to Skye Bolt to open the second. The homer was the third of the season for Bolt, who also homered last Tuesday at Gardner-Web..
Carolina (33-23) chased Peterson in the third with four consecutive one-out hits. Korey Dunbar started things with a single off the pitcher before Russell tripled to the gap in left center to make it 2-1. Wood Myers then singled home Russell in front of Landon Lassiter, who doubled down the third base line. Bolt's sac fly to right pushed the lead to 4-1, and that would prove to be just enough offense.
Hovis retired eight in a row from the first to the fourth before running into trouble. Austin and Knizner reached on back-to-back one-out singles before Jake Fincher walked to load the bases. Bubby Riley singled home a pair and Carlos Rodon walked to end Hovis' first start of the year. Rice entered and struck out Chance Shepard and Kyle Cavanaugh to leave the bases loaded, three of the 11 men left on base by the Wolfpack.
Rice left his own jam for Kelley in the fifth, as NC State loaded the bases again with a hit and two walks. But Kelley got Knizner to foul out on the first pitch he saw before an unorthodox double play ended the inning. Kelley struck Fincher out looking for the second out of the inning before Turner was called out trying to steal home on the throw back to the mound.
Once again in the sixth, Carolina found trouble only to have Trayner come to the rescue. With two on and two out, Trayner got Turner to bounce into a fielder's choice to third to strand a pair. The freshman righty then struck out the side in the seventh before more drama unfolded in the eighth.
After a leadoff walk to Riley, Rodon bounced to Russell at short. But the Tar Heel junior threw wide of second after an initial bobble, and NC State had the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.
From there, it was Thornton's game to finish, and the sophomore standout opened his first relief outing of 2014 with back-to-back strikeouts of Shepard and Jake Armstrong. With two gone in the eighth, Thornton intentionally walked Turner before getting Ratledge to line out to center to end the threat.
The ninth was decidedly less dramatic for the Tar Heels, as Thornton needed just five pitches to retire the heart of the Wolfpack lineup in order to notch his first save of the year and put Carolina into Pool B of the tournament.
UNC will face second-seeded Florida State in first pool play game Wednesday at 7 p.m. The Tar Heels will then meet No. 3 Virginia Friday night at 7 before wrapping up pool play with No. 6 Maryland Saturday at 3.
Taylore Cherry will start Wednesday's game for UNC opposite FSU's Billy Strode.