GAINESVILLE, Fla. Behind a five-run third inning and a clutch pitching performance from Reilly Hovis, North Carolina survived a three-hour rain delay and its first elimination game to defeat host Florida, 5-2 on Saturday in NCAA regional play.
After a lackluster performance in a 6-1 loss to Long Beach State on Friday, the Tar Heels were clearly more focused at the plate and had put multiple runners on base in the first two innings and had runners at first and second in the bottom of the third with no outs.
Then the rain came.
Three hours and 19 minutes later, the game resumed and the Tar Heel batters went back to work.
Alex Raburn singled to score Landon Lassiter and Tyler Ramirez followed with a two-run double to bring home Skye Bolt and Raburn for a 3-0 lead. A RBI double by Adam Pate and an RBI single by Korey Dunbar completed the outburst and gave coach Mike Fox the early runs he wanted.
“We wanted to get an early lead and put some pressure on them,” Fox said. “We left two on base in the first and three in the second, but Tyler came up with a big hit in the third and Adam Pate is another one of our freshmen that have come up big for us.”
With starter Benton Moss unavailable after the lengthy delay, Fox went with Hovis and for the better part of four innings he shut the Florida offense down.
“It’s always easy to pitch after you get some runs,” Hovis added. “Coming into a big game with a 5-0 lead you just want to go in there and throw strikes and not give away any freebies.”
It was a nice turn of events for the Tar Heels after a frightening incident in the second left them without All-American shortstop Michael Russell.
Russell took a Bobby Poyner fastball to the side of the head and left the game bleeding from a cut above his eye. Fox asked for, and was granted, a 10-minute injury timeout to try to see if Russell would be able to continue.
After it was determined Russell would need to be replaced, Raburn moved from first to shortstop, Jordan Parks moved to first from left field and Zach Daly moved to left field.
“We were definitely going to see if he could continue to play because he’s a big part of this program,” Fox said. “I wasn’t certain of the injury delay rule and I think everyone was just trying to do the right thing and give as much time as possible to get him back into the game.”
Russell received stitches for the cut but did not lose consciousness or show signs of a concussion. Fox said he thinks the Russell will return to the lineup Sunday.
As for Raburn he made two key defensive plays at shortstop that helped the Tar Heels escape tough innings with minimal damage.
In the top of the fifth with a runner on second and one out, Raburn charged a dribbler and made a strong off-balanced throw to first to retire Florida center fielder Harrison Bader by a step. Hovis then struck out Taylor Gushue to end the inning.
And in the seventh with the bases loaded and two out, Florida first baseman Zach Powers ripped a single to center that scored Casey Turgeon. But as Florida shortstop Richie Martin tried to score from second, he slipped and fell making a hard turn around third. Raburn went home with the relay throw and Dunbar applied the tag to end the inning, with the score 5-1.
“Alex was incredibly alert on that play,” Fox said. “It definitely took plays like that and some pressure pitching to help us survive because we didn’t get a hit after the fourth inning.”
Spencer Trayner pitched the final two innings of relief for the Tar Heels. He retired Martin on a ground ball in the eighth with two runners on and two out and recorded the final three outs in the ninth after putting the lead off runner on base.
North Carolina will face Long Beach State again at 1 p.m. Sunday. The 49ers lost to College of Charleston late Saturday. Right-hander Zac Galllen is the scheduled starter.
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