6:00pm: Sportsline with Tony Caridi

End of an era: West Virginia falls 2-1 to Tar Heels in Mazey’s final game as head coach

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When West Virginia earned an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, there were no shortage of question marks regarding the team’s pitching staff outside of ace Derek Clark.

Tyler Switalski and Carson Estridge provided answers and then some to many of those questions, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Mountaineers’ season from ending Saturday night in a 2-1 loss to No. 4 North Carolina at Boshamer Stadium.

“That’s the best Switalski has pitched as a Mountaineer for him to do that on this stage,” WVU head coach Randy Mazey said following the final game of his coaching career. “These kids in this West Virginia program will remember this feeling watching the other team dogpile and that kind of stuff drives you. They’re going to have to drive without ole coach Maze. But they’ll remember this feeling. The first time you play in a super regional, it’s hard. This is the natural progression of a program.”

Vance Honeycutt led off the contest with a home run on the game’s first pitch with the Tar Heels serving as the road team in their home stadium, but it was the right arm of freshman Jason DeCaro that was instrumental in leading UNC (47-14) to its 12th appearance in a College World Series and first since 2018.

DeCaro, who enrolled early at UNC after bypassing his senior year of high school, was dominant throughout. He worked 6 1/3 innings and limited the Mountaineers to two hits, including one over the first six innings.

“He’s a special kid. Ultra competitive,” UNC head coach Scott Forbes said. “He gave up his senior year of high school because he trusted us.”

For DeCaro, it was important to put forth a better showing Saturday than what he displayed over two appearances last week when he was tagged for five runs in six innings.

“The biggest thing is I wasn’t too happy with last weekend and the coaches were great helping me out, working with me and helping me stay within myself,” DeCaro said. “All credit to them for giving me the game plan to go out there and do it.”

The Tar Heels’ first sign of trouble came in the seventh with a 2-0 lead.

Reed Chumley’s one-out single marked the end of DeCaro’s memorable outing, and although reliever Dalton Pence struck out Grant Hussy upon entering, he then walked Spencer Barnett and surrendered a single to Kyle West that allowed the Mountaineers (36-24) to cut their deficit in half.

Pence struck out Ben Lumsden to keep UNC in front through seven frames.

WVU relief pitcher Carson Estridge, who entered with two on and one out in the seventh, escaped a bases loaded jam that inning before preventing the Tar Heels from scoring in the eighth and ninth as well.

“We said going into it we’re playing with house money because we’d never been this far as a program,” Mazey said. “That doesn’t mean it’s OK to lose, but you can play more relaxed. We did. We played relaxed and confident. I don’t think there was a doubt from anybody in our dugout that we’d win this game.”

While Pence retired the Mountaineers in order in the eighth, they put together quite a threat in the ninth.

Sam White accounted for a leadoff single and after Chumley struck out, pinch runner Armani Guzman advanced to second on a wild pitch. Grant Hussey then worked a walk to put the winning run on base, before pinch hitter Ellis Garcia was caught looking on a 2-2 pitch.

But when West worked a walk on a full count offering, the winning run was in scoring position for Lumsden.

Yet Pence maintained his poise and induced a ground ball to first base for the final out, which he recorded after taking a throw from Harber, allowing the Tar Heels to dogpile in celebration on the mound.

“I’m not a runner. I had to dig it pretty good to get over there,” Pence said. “After I caught the ball and hit the bag, just an unbelievable feeling and we’re going to Omaha.”

Switalski got off to an inauspicious start when he surrendered a home run to Honeycutt, the leadoff batter’s single-season program record 26th this season, which came one night after he belted a two-run walk-off home run in an 8-6 UNC win.

The southpaw settled in from there and retired eight straight battled until the second out of the third inning.

“First pitch caught a little too much of the zone. I had to redial it back in and keep competing,” Switalski said. “Kept competing and going down the order.”

With two outs in the third, Honeycutt alertly bunted for a single, which was followed by consecutive singles from Casey Cook and Parks Harber, the latter of which allowed Honeycutt to score what proved to be the winning run.

“In that inning there were two quick outs in front of me. I was trying to get it to the next guy and that was a good opportunity for me to do it with them shifting three guys to the other side,” Honeycutt said of the bunt single. 

WVU’s offense, meanwhile, struggled mightily to produce. Brodie Kresser’s second-inning single marked the Mountaineers’ lone hit through six innings, and Kresser was forced to leave ahead of the fourth inning due to an injury he suffered while sliding into second on a stolen base.

Kresser was replaced by Barnett, before Garcia pinch hit for him in the ninth.

West Virginia looked to have a shot at the tying run reaching base in the eighth, but Skylar King’s well-struck fly ball was tracked down by Honeycutt in right-center.

“I’ve been saying since the beginning of the season he’s the best player in the country and I really believe that,” Forbes said. 

The result brings an end to West Virginia’s season as well as Mazey’s coaching career, with the veteran skipper having announced last summer that this would be his final season.

Mazey finishes with 558 career wins and a 372-274 record over 12 seasons with the Mountaineers.

“I told my guys out there in my 35 years of coaching, that’s the team I want to end my career with,” Mazey said. “I love every one of them and I think they know that. The way we coach is I don’t care if you don’t get hits or throw strikes, I won’t love you any less. When kids play that way, it enables them to play more free.”

Pence threw the final 2 2/3 innings after replacing DeCaro. He struck out six, walked three and yielded two hits.

“He’s one of the best relievers in the country,” Mazey said.

Switlaski, who did not log more than five innings in any regular season appearance, had his second straight strong outing in the postseason. After throwing 7 2/3 innings in a win last week against Grand Canyon, the southpaw limited the Tar Heels to two runs over 6 1/3 innings. He struck out four, walked one and allowed five hits.

“On a big stage,” Switalski said, “you have to have confidence and not let the moment scare you.” 

Estridge worked 2 2/3 scoreless and hitless innings in relief with six strikeouts.

Honeycutt, who finished 2-for-4, was the only player in the game with more than one hit.

Mountaineer standout shortstop JJ Wetherholt was hitless in four at bats and struggled over five NCAA Tournament games, going 4-for-20 without an extra-base hit.

“I wanted to win this one so bad and it’s how the game goes sometimes,” Wetherholt said. “It’s a tough game.”

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