Call it a Bolt out of the Tar Heel blue.
North Carolina freshman right-hander Skye Bolt lashed a two-out, two-strike RBI single off South Carolina closer Tyler Webb in the ninth inning to give the Tar Heels a 6-5, walkoff win Saturday afternoon in Game 1 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional.
The hit to right scored No. 9 hitter Parks Jordan, who led off the inning with a single and scored ahead of USC right-fielder Sean Sullivan’s throw. It ended a back-and-forth game between the two national powers.
“It was a great at-bat against a veteran pitcher. You’ve got to tip your cap to him,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook, who acknowledged the difficulty of holding the top-seeded Tar Heels in check.
“As good as their pitching has been all year, the thing that stood out to me about their team is their offensive approach, their willingness to never give in, the incredible job they do with two strikes,” Holbrook added. “They’ve got nine really good hitters in the lineup. You can never catch your breath with those guys.”
Bolt, who’s batting .342 with 50 RBIs on the season, relished the pressure of the game being on the line.
“It’s every guy’s dream as a hitter,” Bolt said. “It’s a situation you live to be in.”
The teams will play Game 2 on Sunday at 1 p.m. USC left-hander Jordan Montgomery (5-1) will face UNC left-hander Hobbs Johnson (4-0). The Tar Heels (56-9) need one more win to advance to the College World Series, while the Gamecocks (42-19) must win the next two to keep playing.
“We’ve been in this situation. It’s win or go home,” USC catcher Grayson Greiner said. “I think we’ve got the right guys in the clubhouse to bounce back from this. We’ll have the right mindset going into tomorrow.”
It’s the first time USC has faced a do-or-die situation in Super Regional play since 2007, when the Gamecocks also lost the first game to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in a series UNC won in three games.
The game turned into a battle of the bullpens, with Webb (3-3) squaring off against UNC freshman right-hander Trent Thornton (10-1), who pitched the final three innings. Although he gave up an eighth-inning RBI double to Chase Vergason that tied the game at 5, he shut down the Gamecocks in order in the seventh and ninth innings.
Things started well for USC, as it took less than three innings to knock UNC left-hander Kent Emanuel out of the box. Emanuel, who threw 175 pitches in a start and a relief appearance in last week’s regional, struggled with his command and his velocity.
USC put up four runs on seven hits off Emanuel — including a two-run single by Greiner in the first inning, an RBI single by Graham Saiko in the second and a solo homer by Joey Pankake in the third — in his 21/3 innings. Emanuel, who was drafted in the third round Friday by the Houston Astros, left after throwing 63 pitches.
The Tar Heels, however, kept the game close, thanks to USC’s poor defensive play. After Colin Moran doubled home a run in the first inning, he scored when Saiko dropped a two-out fly ball in left.
Another run scored in the third as Moran, who had singled, went to third on a double by Cody Stubbs and scampered home on an errant throw by right-fielder Connor Bright, who missed the cutoff man.
Those errors were magnified when USC’s offense stalled against the UNC bullpen, which delivered a combined 32/3 scoreless innings from Chris Munnelly, Tate Parrish and Chris McCue before Thornton took over.
“We can’t drop fly balls and miss cutoff men in the outfield. That led to two runs, and obviously we lose by one. The game was there for us to win,” Holbrook said. “We had opportunities to win it, and we didn’t capitalize on those opportunities. You have to play extremely well to beat North Carolina.”
The Gamecocks left 12 runners on base, including eight in scoring position.
“They just showed the depth of their bullpen throughout the game,” said Greiner, who flied out to end the eighth inning with the bases loaded. “They kept us off-balance there, and we weren’t really able to get anything going.”
North Carolina took its first lead in the sixth inning with a pair of runs off USC starter Nolan Belcher, who gave up a single to Bolt and double to Stubbs to start the inning. Adam Westmoreland replaced him but couldn’t close the door as Brian Holberton lined a two-run single to center to give the Tar Heels a 5-4 lead.
“I’ve got to go deeper in a game. Five innings, five runs, that’s pretty bad,” Belcher said. “It’s my job to pitch through errors. I didn’t do that today.”
Now the Gamecocks can’t afford to lose another game against a team that hasn’t lost two in a row all season.
“You come into this situation hoping to get to Game 3. We’ve still got a chance to do that. The series isn’t lost,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got some guys that have played in national championship games and got a couple of rings on their fingers. They’re not going to throw in the towel.”
The Gamecocks must also beat a team that keeps winning tournament games in improbable ways.
“They’re a great team, and they got the big hit in the end,” USC’s LB Dantzler said. “We got up early, and they’ve shown all year that they can bounce back. They did it again today.”
Video: Holbrook, USC postgame
Video: UNC's Mike Fox postgame