Diamond Heels Squeeze Out a Win at Minute Maid
HOUSTON ––The typical postgame routine for Carolina baseball parents on the road is to gather back at the lobby of the team hotel, meet up with their sons and make dinner plans. Friday was no different, but as each parent looked at the next, they shook their heads in wide-eyed wonder, with a knowing smile. The game they’d just seen had been anything but typical.
College baseball observers around the country had circled Friday’s Astros Foundation College Classic matchup between Rice and Carolina as one to watch, and the #12 Owls and the #1 Tar Heels did not disappoint. The game pitted two of college baseball’s best pitchers (and possible first-round MLB Draft candidates) against one another, with the Tar Heels’ Kent Emanuel facing Rice’s Austin Kubitza at Minute Maid Park, the home of the Houston Astros.
Kubitza came into the game having not allowed a run, with just eight hits surrendered across 16 1/3 innings in two starts. Early in Friday’s game, it was all the Tar Heels could do to get the bat on the ball at all. Kubitza’s devastating slider danced along the outer half of the plate to the right-handed hitters. In fact, he worked to expand the strike zone on both sides of the plate. Scoring opportunities were difficult to come by. “Kubitza was sensational,” Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. “I didn’t think we were going to get a hit there for a while.”
They didn’t, for a while. Through four innings, Carolina had just four base-runners, via two walks, an error, and a hit batsman, and none had advanced past second base.
Emanuel didn’t shy away from the challenge. The tall lefty seems to improve as the game goes on, and that was the case Friday. Rice’s Michael Aquino tripled to open the second. A sacrifice bunt from Leon Byrd came right to Emanuel, but he was unable to secure the ball and toss it home before Aquino scored. But the Owls were unable to add to the tally. Rice would get the occasional base-runner, but Emanuel kept the door closed. “I missed a lot of spots today, and they capitalized a lot,” he said after the game. “But that’s the beauty of it. If they get on, it doesn’t mean they’re scoring.”
“Kent gets in trouble sometimes (but) he really dials it up,” Fox said. “There were a couple of situations there where he had to have a big out, and we left him out there for the last out, and he’s able to get the big out there at first and second. But that’s typical Kent; he just gives us a chance to win.”
Early, he sought to explore the strike zone, and wound up with some hitter’s counts. “I usually get on the same page with the umpire pretty quickly in games and it seemed to take a little bit longer today,” he said. Emanuel watched Kubitza live on the outer half and tried to do the same. “I will say this: with [Kubitza’s] stuff with the umpire, it seemed like everything was dropping and obviously it was working. He struck out like our first 20 dude," he said. After three innings, Emanuel switched to a two-seam fastball, which sinks more than a traditional four-seamer, and found a spot he and home plate umpire Chuck Busse could agree on.
Carolina’s first hit of the day came into the fifth inning, when Brian Holberton singled. He would only make it as far as third base, and the Owls kept the Tar Heels at a run’s length.
Rice threatened again in the 6th when Aquino attempted to score from second on a Byrd single. Carolina left fielder Michael Russell threw to catcher Matt Roberts, who was waiting with the ball well before Aquino arrived.
Even if they weren’t scoring, the Tar Heels were making Kubitza throw. His pitch count crept past 100 entering the 7th inning, and that’s when the Tar Heels were able to go to work. Mike Zolk and Brian Holberton singled to open the frame, and a Parks Jordan flyout moved Zolk to third. He then scored on a wild pitch to tie the game.
Rice threatened in the bottom half, getting runners to second and third with two outs, but Emanuel induced a fly ball from Michael Ratterree to strand them there. After the Tar Heels left two on in the eighth, relievers Trevor Kelley and Chris McCue combined to preserve the tie. A wild ninth inning would decided the game.
Freshman catcher Korey Dunbar attempted to move Holberton to second with a sacrifice bunt, but his attempt went straight to Rice third baseman Shane Hoelscher, who got the lead runner. Dunbar attempted to score on a Chaz Frank double, but was tagged out at the plate for out number two. The throw did however allow Frank to reach third. A wild pitch from Rice reliever Zech Lemond bounced away from catcher Geoff Perrott and trickled toward first base. Perrott found the ball and tossed it to Lemond as Frank barreled toward home plate. The Tar Heel senior slid underneath the tag attempt to give Carolina the lead. The Rice fans were upset, but Lemond had clearly whiffed at Frank, then applied the tag after Frank had touched home.
In the ninth, Luis Paula allowed a two-out single but got Christian Stringer to ground out to first, and Cody Stubbs stomped on the bag for the Tar Heel 2-1 win. With that, the Diamond Heels had passed a big early test.
“I wish every game was like this,” Emanuel said afterward. “To be honest, I was more excited to play Rice than I was playing in a big league park. Hopefully there will be more to come. I get a feeling we might see them again in the future. We’ll see.”
Back at the team hotel, Frank was still processing what had happened. “Did he miss the first time?” he asked. “But then he got me after I’d already scored?” Yes, Chaz. Just like that. “Alright.”
Carolina continues the Astros Foundation College Classic against California Saturday at 1 Eastern, then plays Texas A&M Sunday at 3. All games can be heard on GoHeels.com.