CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The VMI baseball team dropped its season opener Friday afternoon, losing 13-3 to top-ranked North Carolina in the opening game at the newly renovated Bryson Field at Boshamer Stadium.
Despite nine strikeouts by Carolina ace starting pitcher Alex White (1-0) over his five innings of work, the game was a nip-and-tuck affair until the Tar Heels broke the game open with six runs in the home half of the fifth. Leading 4-3, the home team was the recipient of two consecutive walks to start the frame. A Garrett Gore single then scored the first run, opening the flood gates to the six-run frame.
Gore paced the Tar Heel offense, going 3-for-5 with three RBI singles, while catcher Mike Fleury also had a three-hit afternoon for the home team. VMI’s offense was led by four different players with at least two hits, including sophomore Jordan Ballard, who hit the first Keydet home run of the season. Sandridge, Justin Topping and Graham Sullivan also had multiple hits in a game which saw every VMI starter, save one, tally at least one hit.
The Keydets opened the game with a rare play, as leadoff man Sam Roberts struck out against White. However, the ball scooted away from the Tar Heel catcher, allowing Roberts to reach. However, he was stranded at third base when Tanner Biagini and Jordan Ballard both struck out. Carolina took advantage in the bottom half, when freshman Levi Michael was hit by a Travis Smink (0-1) pitch. All-American Dustin Ackley then had an infield hit, and one out later, Gore notched the first of his three hits on the day, plating Michael with the game’s opening run.
VMI threatened again in the second against White, as Brian Sandridge led off with a single to right. One out later, sophomore Graham Sullivan singled to left to move Sandridge to second. White came back with strikeouts of Alex Haitsuka and David Lottman to end the threat, and keep the score 1-0 Carolina.
The home squad pushed its lead to four in the third, in another rally started by Michael. The freshman slapped a single to right for his first collegiate hit, and Ackley followed with his second hit of the day. One out later, a Smink fastball shattered Gore’s bat, but unfortunately for the Keydets, the Tar Heel outfielder was able to muscle the ball into short center for an RBI hit. Center fielder Lottman overran the ball, allowing a second run to score and making it 3-0 Tar Heels. Gore then scored on a Fleury single to account for the inning’s final run.
Down 4-0, and having seen eight of their first nine hitters retired via strikeout, the Keydets got on the board in the fourth. Ballard hit White’s first pitch deep over the left-field wall for a solo home run, cutting the VMI deficit to 4-1. The blast was the first at Carolina’s new facility, and the visitors would add another run later in the inning, cutting the margin to 4-2. Smink set down the Tar Heels in order in the fourth, and his teammates kept the momentum, as a Biagini RBI single plated Roberts to make it 4-3, Carolina.
Smink took the ball in the fifth trailing 4-3, but Michael started another rally, and this one blew the game open. The pesky #2 hitter walked on four pitches to start the frame, and Ackley followed with a walk on a 3-2 pitch. Kyle Seager grounded into a fielder’s choice, which brought Matt Edwards out of the bullpen with runners on the corners.
“I thought Smink did a nice job. Credit to their hitters to get his pitch count up,” said VMI head coach Marlin Ikenberry. “They had a nice two-strike approach and got some big hits late in the count.
Edwards was greeted rudely by Gore’s third single, which plated Michael. The Tar Heels then added a pair of runs on a double, and after a walk, freshman Michael Devine came on to replace Edwards. Ben Bunting doubled home two more runs to make it 9-3, and a Ryan Graepel double plating Bunting to cap the inning’s scoring.
“They put together a big inning in the fifth to answer our rally, and it’s tough to play catch-up against a team like that,” said Coach Ikenberry. “We had our chances in the sixth and the seventh, we just couldn’t quite come up with the big hit in the key situation. They did a good job of extending the lead late.”
The Keydets threatened to piece together a rally in the top of the sixth, trailing 10-3, but failed to plate any runs after loading the bases. The visitors could not score again, as VMI left nine men on base in the final four innings, while the Tar Heels added a single run in the sixth and two more in the seventh to account for the final margin, 13-3.
White earned the win (1-0) with his five-inning performance, as the consensus All-American gave up three runs on eight hits, walking one and striking out nine. Smink took the loss to fall to 0-1, as the VMI standout gave up five earned runs on six hits over 4 1/3 innings of work.
“This is a great learning experience for our club,” offered Coach Ikenberry. “It’s an experience that will be a process throughout the year.”
VMI baseball will continue its opening series Saturday, as they play game two of the weekend set with #1 North Carolina. The Keydets are scheduled to throw Chris Henderson, while Carolina will counter with right-hander Adam Warren. Game time is set for 1 p.m.