The fourth-ranked Tar Heels administered heavy doses of Adam Warren's right arm and Dustin Ackley's smoking bat in building a commanding 8-1 lead through eight innings in front of 5,376 fans. North Carolina (42-14) scattered 13 hits in six innings, while scoring runs in five of those, led by the ACC Player of the Year's two home runs and four RBI.
"It was one of our better games - we really came ready to play tonight," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Ackley (3-for-5) tied Duke's Nate Freiman for the conference lead with his 18th and 19th home runs in delivering his second four-RBI game in the last three games.
Warren (7-2) fought his way into the spotlight by giving up just three runs on six hits in a career-long 8 1/3 innings, while striking out seven and walking just one. Colin Bates (one hit in 2/3 innings) came on in the ninth and gave up a hit that allowed two Duke scores, but those runs were too little, too late.
Ackley's homerun highlighted a two-run first inning, while Mike Cavasinni's RBI triple helped UNC build a 4-0 lead through four innings. After Duke threatened in the sixth inning with a run of its own, Ackley closed the door with his second homerun – this time with Cavasinni standing on second – to push the lead to 6-1.
A Jacob Stallings sacrifice bunt in the seventh and a Kyle Seager (3-for-3) RBI double in the eighth closed out North Carolina's scoring for the evening.
Duke lefty Christopher Manno (5-6) gave up four runs on seven hits and three walks over five innings, while Dennis O'Grady (four hits, three runs in 1 1/3 innings) and Kyle Butler (two hits, one run in 1 2/3 innings) rounded out the Blue Devils' bullpen. Shortstop Jake Lemmerman was 3-for-4 with two RBI, and catcher Matt Williams also provided a hit and a RBI.
The Tar Heels return to action at the DBAP on Friday at 8 p.m. against Virginia.
INSIDE THE GAME
Setting the Tone
With five Tar Heels starters seeing their first legitimate action in an ACC Tournament, there was bound to be some pregame jitters and nervousness as the first pitch was thrown out at 8:12 p.m. Leadoff hitter Ryan Graepel dug an early 0-2 hole in his first at-bat before grounding out, bringing the ACC Player of the Year to the plate.
All Ackley did was what great leaders do – make his presence immediately felt throughout the DBAP with a third pitch bomb that sailed over the right centerfield wall to give North Carolina a quick 1-0 lead. For a rather inexperienced batting lineup – at least when considering this program's recent history – the junior first baseman from Walnut Cove, N.C. provided the baseball version of a shrink session by not only calming any potential fears, but also dramatically building confidence not 15 minutes from the first pitch.
"The first at bat was a 2-0 fastball," Ackley told reporters after the game. "I pretty much got all I could of it."
Seager quickly followed suit, working deep into the count against lefty Christopher Manno before belting a ball into the gap in right centerfield for his 23rd double of the season. After a quick steal of third base, the junior scored on Michael's infield single to push UNC's lead to 2-0.
In all, the two All-Americans combined for 6-of-8 hitting with two home runs, a triple, two doubles, two walks and five RBI.
Warren Delivers Perfectly
When the senior right-hander took the mound on Wednesday night, nobody expected his performance to be so, well, important. His stat line is obviously impressive – six hits and three runs in 8 1/3 innings.
But the silver lining for this Tar Heel pitching staff is that the near-complete game was Warren's longest outing in his career, making the New Bern, N.C. product just the third UNC starter to reach the 29-win mark. In doing so, Fox was able to rest his bullpen.
"That's very important," Fox said. "We've taxed a couple of our relievers a lot during the year. It's nice to give Brian Moran some rest, and Colin [Bates] some rest as well."
And with inning-eater Alex White set to take the mound on Friday, should the Tar Heels advance to Sunday, Warren will have set the bullpen up for a strong finish instead of nursing their arms heading home for the NCAA Tournament.
And a Child Shall Lead Them…
There's no doubt that Ackley and Seager, along with junior catcher Mark Fleury, have formed the cornerstone of the Tar Heel offensive assault this season. But from a different angle, the prevailing thought is that North Carolina will need some of the other players on the roster to step up in supporting roles if a national championship run is to ever materialize.
Freshman Levi Michael provided a needed bat early in the season before hitting a midseason wall that correlated with the typical end of a high school season, but he has recently regained his swing. Against Duke, the second baseman beat out a deep shortstop throw to score UNC's second run of the contest, but where his contribution really showed up was in squashing the Blue Devils' 6th inning rally with a sprint 25-feet into the outfield for a diving catch and subsequent pickoff at first base for a crippling double play.
"Plays like that are momentum changers," Duke catcher Matt Williams said. "That takes a hit away from us there into a double play, so we go from having two runners on with nobody out to having nobody on and two outs. It was an absolutely phenomenal play."