MOUNT OLIVE — With its back against the wall in the sixth and eighth innings, The University of North Carolina baseball team stood its ground and the big hits came.
The big innings with clutch hits from two senior leaders gave run support to a strong pitching outing from Anthony Burke in the Braves’ 6-2 win over Catawba to start the NCAA Southeast regional held at the University of Mount Olive on Thursday. The Braves take on the host and No. 1 team in the nation Mount Olive at 3 p.m. today.
“The game was very tight, it was 1-1 for a very long time, but got fortunate to hit a home run and then we had a bases-clearing double,” UNCP coach Paul O’Neil said. “Our guy Anthony threw a great baseball game for us.”
No. 5 seed UNCP (41-15) rode the arm of Anthony Burke, who stayed level-headed through the middle innings before his team gave him run support that came with timely hits in critical spots. In the top of the sixth inning, senior Hayden Buffkin knocked a two-run homer with two outs to break a 1-1 tie and put the Braves up 3-1.
“We know that once we get the runs ahead that Anthony can keep the other team to a minimum,” Buffkin said.
Fellow senior Drew Beaver followed suit with a two-out hit in the eighth inning when he doubled to clear the loaded bases.
“We were playing good defense behind him all night,” Beaver said. “It was just giving Burke run support because he was the guy we wanted on the mound.”
With the runs behind him, Burke had new life and kept dealing in the later innings, even with action in the UNCP bullpen going on in case of an emergency. The emergency never came, and Burke finished by retiring the final six batters he faced after Beaver’s three-run hit to close out his complete game.
The junior righty allowed seven hits, struck out five and didn’t allow a walk on the mound.
“Those (runs) were huge because it is a lot easier to pitch with a lead,” Burke said. “We just tried to fill it up and let them hit the ball and they didn’t really get to many hits, and I just let my defense work behind me like it has done all year.”
The win was Burke’s 11th of the season and he became the first UNCP player in 43 years — since Ron Norman in 1974 — to reach that many wins in a season. His outing continues the tear he has been on as of late with seven wins in his last eight starts.
Fourth-seeded Catawba (33-16) and UNCP were caught in a pitching duel for the first six innings before Buffkin’s homer, as Burke’s counterpart Russ Weiker held the Braves to a run on four hits.
Both teams posted runs in the first inning when Nick Debo’s RBI double for the Braves scored Luke Jackson in the top half of the inning, and Kyle Smith’s RBI double scored Luke Setzer in the Indians’ half of the first.
For the second time in as many trips, UNCP goes into the second day of the NCAA Southeast regional in the winners’ bracket. The Braves won the first two games before dropping the next two to be eliminated in the 2011 regional that was also hosted by Mount Olive. The Trojans were the second and final loss on that run, in the last meeting between the two programs.
“You never want to lose the first game of it, and we were going to go all in,” O’Neil said. “We were prepared to do whatever we had to do to stay in the winners’ bracket. We were fortunate that Anthony threw a really good game and these guys on the end of the table got some big, clutch hits for us.”
Buffkin, Debo and Jarratt Mobley each had two hits in the game for the Braves. For Catawba, Smith, Setzer and Bryce Fowler each had a pair of hits as well.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.