Southpaws Clark, Sprague get the nod in super regional opener between Mountaineers and UNC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Exactly one week ago, Derek Clark limited one of the top offenses in college baseball while going the distance to lead West Virginia to a 4-1 victory against Dallas Baptist.

Clark’s performance allowed the Mountaineers to start the Tucson Regional in strong fashion, and West Virginia would go on to defeat Grand Canyon twice to advance to a super regional series for the first time in program history.

For the Mountaineers to begin the best-of-three series at No. 4 North Carolina in similar fashion to the regional, they’ll look to their left-handed ace again, with Clark set to start the 6 p.m. opener Friday, which will be shown nationally on ESPN.

“Their offense doesn’t miss mistakes. They’re the No. 4 team in the country for a reason,” Clark said. “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re going to give yourself a great chance to win a ball game in the ninth. Just trying to execute spots, hit corners and keep them off balance with off speed stuff and so on.”

UNC (45-14) possesses one of the more potent lineups in all of college baseball, with the Tar Heels ranking in the top 25 nationally in batting average (.308), runs per game (8.8), home runs (109) and slugging percentage (.536).

Five players have combined for all but 21 of the Tar Heels’ round-trippers, led by centerfielder Vance Honeycutt’s 24 and first baseman Parks Harber, who follows with 20.

Left fielder Casey Cook has 18 home runs, while catcher Luke Stevenson and designated hitter Alberto Osuna show 13 apiece. That’s to say nothing of freshman third baseman Gavin Gallaher, who has a team-best .348 batting average among regulars in the lineup and was instrumental in allowing the Tar Heels to advance out of a regional they hosted last week that included defending national champion LSU, Wofford and Long Island.

“It’s depressing how good they are,” WVU coach Randy Mazey said. “They’re so physical and so competitive and so confident in this park. It’s going to be tough and I wouldn’t want it any other way for our guys. I want them to think how tough this is going to be, because what’ll motivate them. If they thought it was going to be easy, you wouldn’t get the most out of them.”

Yet the 5-foot-9 Clark poses quite a challenge himself. In his first season at West Virginia after transferring from Division II Northwood University, Clark is 8-2 with a 2.82 ERA over a team-high 89 1/3 innings. He has 83 strikeouts against 20 walks and has consistently gone deep into games, averaging better than seven innings per start, going nine innings on five occasions and at least seven in each of his last three starts.

“He has a quick arm. He hides the ball and has some deception,” UNC coach Scott Forbes said. “He can throw three pitches for strikes and throw the ball where he wants to. His fastball has a little ride to it and has that late life. He can go up in the zone when he needs to. He’s ultra competitive and very athletic. Three pitches for strikes, it doesn’t matter if you’re 6-6 or 5-7, you’re going to have a chance to be good and keep hitters off balance.”

However, Forbes stressed there isn’t much that should catch the UNC lineup off guard at this point in the season.

“The ACC prepares you for anything. We feel like we’ve faced pretty much every type of pitcher,” he said. “That’s the great thing about playing in a league like ours. We’ll have an approach for sure and use that approach. Sometimes you have to change the approach in the middle of a game. What I tell our guys this time of year, ‘you’re more important than what you’re getting ready to face. Go in there, be confident and keep your rhythm.’ We’re going to be on the attack like we always are. He’s going to be on the attack. He’s good, but we’ve faced a lot of really good arms throughout the whole season.”

May 24, 2024; Charlotte, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels pitcher Shea Sprague starts against the Wake Forest during the ACC Baseball Tournament at Truist Field. Mandatory Credit: Scott Kinser-USA TODAY Sports

Clark won’t be the only southpaw starting on the mound as the Tar Heels turn to their own lefty in Shea Sprague, who worked 4 1/3 scoreless innings during North Carolina’s 6-2 victory last Saturday against LSU in what marked the first of three regional matchups between the two teams.

Sprague, a 6-3 junior, enters with a 3-1 record, 3.76 ERA and 58 strikeouts with 16 walks. He’s allowed more than three runs in only four of 15 appearances.

“Clark is such a small guy with a huge heart. I don’t know the personality of Sprague, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s that guy, too,” Mazey said. “He’s really good. From a pitch ability standpoint, he has fastball command, change-up and occasional slider, so that’s the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if that kid gets the most of out his ability like Derek does. I’m just not around him every day.”

The Mountaineers (36-22) will look to duplicate the offensive effort from their most recent showing when they jumped on GCU early in last Sunday’s game, scoring 10 runs over the first five innings of what amounted to a 10-6 victory.

It culminated a three-game regional in which WVU scored 19 runs after managing only six over a pair of losses in the Big 12 Championship before NCAA Tournament play.

“We know that they’re ranked higher than us. We weren’t ranked coming into the tournament and nobody picked us to get out of Tucson,” Mountaineer shortstop JJ Wetherholt said. “You can rally around that, but for the most part, we know that we’re better than people think we are. We can use that as motivation and just continue to keep playing hard.”

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