Cut from a different cloth: UNC standout belts walk-off home run as Tar Heels rally for 8-6 win against West Virginia in series opener

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Vance Honeycutt’s intention was not to end Friday’s super regional series opener against West Virginia with a walk-off home run.

Honeycutt, one of the top players in college baseball who entered with a team-high 24 long balls, was simply striving trying to reach base and get the winning run in scoring position for Casey Cook, who follows him in the lineup.

Yet sometimes things don’t go as planned, and in this case, that was just fine for Honeycutt, who hit a no-doubter of a two-run home run on a 3-1 offering from relief pitcher Aidan Major to cap the No. 4 Tar Heels’ three-run ninth in an 8-6 victory against the Mountaineers before 4,139 at Boshamer Stadium.

“The plan wasn’t to go up there and hit a home run. That’s probably not the right approach,” Honeycutt said. “This place is special. We’re having some Bosh magic. It was really cool.”

One pitch prior to Honeycutt setting off a frenzied UNC (46-14) celebration, he swung and missed at a 3-0 offering from Major.

“I was kind of jumpy on the 3-0,” Honeycutt said. “I told myself to stay back and be patient. I was fortunate to get one and put a swing on it.”

Were it not for the heroics of freshman Luke Stevenson to lead off the ninth, the Tar Heels would’ve been trailing when Honeycutt stepped to the plate instead of having the game tied at 6. On the first pitch thrown by WVU starter Derek Clark in the ninth, Stevenson belted a home run to centerfield just beyond a leaping Aaron Jamison, who had come on as a defensive replacement only seconds earlier.

“I honestly thought he caught it, especially when his glove went back over the wall,” Stevenson said. “I saw the umpire wave his finger in the air and I was pretty excited.”

Clark began the ninth inning with 133 pitches, and after allowing the tying run, he struck out Johnny Castagnozzi. Alex Madera followed with a single that spelled the end of another memorable effort from Clark, who threw 144 pitches and struck out eight over 8 1/3 innings, but took the tough-luck loss after being charged with seven runs.

“That was amazing. That was one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever coached for 35 years,” West Virginia coach Randy Mazey said. “Whatever you spent to come to this game, you dang sure got your money’s worth. What a great college baseball game. I’ve learned over time to try not to feel bad when something like this happens. A great game to watch. Great atmosphere in the stands. That’s college baseball at its finest. Sad right now, but really fun to watch while it was going on.”

Clark and UNC starting pitcher Shea Sprague were equally effective over two scoreless frames to start, before the Mountaineers struck first in the third on a Kyle West solo home run to left. 

West, a Hedgesville native and transfer from Division II University of Charleston, had not played in either Mountaineer victory against Grand Canyon last week and entered hitless in his previous 14 at bats and 1-for-32 over his previous 10 games.

“I try to always have confidence in myself, but I really just stuck to my approach,” said West, who credited a new black magic bat he recently began using. “We’d talked about my swing getting around the ball and we worked the last week on staying through on a lot of pitches.”

The advantage was short-lived, however, as UNC countered with four runs in the bottom of that inning.

Colby Wilkerson, the No. 9 hitter, drew a leadoff walk, and Honeycutt followed with a single, before Cook walked on four pitches to load the bases.

Parks Harber then singled to center to drive in two runs, with WVU’s only error of the game allowing a third run to score on that play. Gavin Gallaher brought the fourth run of the frame in with a two-out single.

“I was leaving some pitches over the plate and I walked two guys in the third. Can’t give a team like that free passes, especially with the middle of their lineup,” Clark said. “Just tried to attack and stay ahead in counts to compete.”

The Mountaineers pulled to within two runs in the fourth on a bizarre play. With Brodie Kresser on first and two outs, West connected for a solid base hit, and WVU elected to get aggressive and send Kresser home. While the throw beat Kresser to the plate by a wide margin, the Mountaineer second baseman got his hand on the plate before Stevenson applied the tag.

“I kind of messed up the tag and had to pick up my team there,” Stevenson said. “Wanted to get the run back. That’s a tag I have to make and I’m aware of that.“

Clark retired the side in order in the fourth and fifth frames, and in the sixth, the Mountaineers scored four runs to go in front.

Sam White reached on UNC’s second and final error, before Reed Chumley hit a game-tying two-run home run to left-center. When Grant Hussey followed with a single, it marked the end of the outing for Sprague, who was replaced by Matthew Matthijs.

After retiring Kresser for the first out, Matthijs surrendered a two-run home run to West, who crushed a first pitch offering over the right field fence.

“Our DH spot has rotated the last month or so. It’s turned into all three or four of them that have different swings to match up with different pitchers,” Mazey said. “I thought Kyle’s swing matched up better with their pitcher, and he got a black magic bat 24 hours ago and had a great round of batting practice with it. Hitters are crazy people and they get confidence from the dumbest thing sometimes.”

Clark worked around Anthony Donofrio’s leadoff single in the sixth to log his third straight scoreless inning, and the Mountaineers were primed to add to their advantage in the seventh when JJ Wetherholt and Logan Sauve were each hit by a pitch in successive plate appearances.

At that point, UNC’s Matt Poston relieved Ben Peterson, and after White’s successful sacrifice run moved both runners into scoring position, Poston struck out Chumley for a pivotal second out. He then induced a ground ball back to the mound off the bat of Hussey to escape the threat with his team still trailing by two.

“He’s one of our dudes,” UNC head coach Scott Forbes said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”

Mazey felt his team missed a golden opportunity to add to its lead.

“I liked Chumley and Hussey’s chances of getting a single there,” Mazey said, “but it’s easy to look back and say I wish I wouldn’t have bunted Sam White there. But leaving those two guys on there was a big moment.”

Wilkerson’s solo home run with one out in the seventh allowed UNC to cut its deficit in half, though Clark worked a perfect ninth with two strikeouts to leave the Mountaineers three outs away from a series lead.

Instead, the Tar Heels moved to within a victory of a spot in the College World Series, while the Mountaineers must win Game 2 at 8 p.m. Saturday to force a decisive third game Sunday afternoon. 

“I could’ve kept going if he needed me to. It was crunch time and I allowed a home run and a single,” Clark said. “I don’t blame him for pulling me.”

UNC improved to 4-1 in the postseason and three of its victories have come in walk-off fashion.

“We don’t really skip a beat. Sometimes you think you might get tight or should get tight,” Honeycutt said. “[Stevenson] hits the first pitch went over the wall and I felt like everyone in the dugout felt like we’d win the game.”

Forbes felt his team’s confidence never wavered.

“We gave them some extra outs and didn’t execute some pitches, but our guys also know they can’t look in the rearview mirror,” Forbes said. “All year, this team has found ways to win and that’s the mark of a good team.”

Tyler Switalksi will start at pitcher Saturday for WVU, while UNC is going with Jason DeCaro.

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