It just so happens that in handling the role of mid-week starter for Coastal Carolina much of this season, sophomore right-hander Zack Hopeck has found himself squaring off against some of the best teams on the Chanticleers’ schedule.
So the stage was nothing new for him Tuesday night as the No. 22-ranked Chants hosted a UNC Wilmington team ranked No. 13 in one national poll and No. 34 in the RPI.
It was a huge game for both teams this late in the schedule, more specifically it was a prime opportunity for Coastal Carolina to boost its resume and odds of hosting an NCAA Regional ... and with that mind, a perfect time for Hopeck to deliver his best outing of the season.
The righty dazzled for six scoreless innings while limiting the Seahawks to two hits and no walks in leading the Chants to a 4-1 win before a crowd of 1,146 at Springs Brooks Stadium.
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“We need these games, to be honest. These kind of stressful games, real baseball games instead of a 17-4 game,” Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said. “These are the kind of games we’re going to have to play to win a regional. So we need to play in big games like this.”
All wins are important. That was a big win just because they’re playing very well, they’re a nationally-ranked team. That’s one of those resume things. And plus we hadn’t played in our ballpark in a long time it seemed like. It was nice to have a chance to win in front of our home fans.
CCU baseball coach Gary Gilmore
Hopeck (2-2) matched a career-long with those six innings and tied his career-high with five strikeouts while lowering his earned-run average to 3.35 in the process.
“My mindset was just execute pitch by pitch, inning by inning, hitter by hitter,” he said. “I just didn’t want to look ahead at all. I didn’t want to look ahead to the fifth – I wanted to get through the first, then the second, then the third, just take it one pitch at a time and keep it simple. ...
“It definitely felt good. When you leave the game with a goose egg on the scoreboard, it’s a good feeling.”
Hopeck has made seven starts this season (and 12 appearances overall), including two against UNC Wilmington (35-14), two against College of Charleston as well as starts against South Carolina and North Carolina. The Chants (37-15) are now 5-2 in his seven starts, and over 40 1/3 innings pitched he has 32 strikeouts, nine walks and a .221 opponent batting average.
“He’s throwing three pitches for strikes and today against these guys he was able to throw his change-up and breaking ball in hitting counts and throw them for strikes and still not walk guys. That’s the whole key to pitching,” Gilmore said. “When you can do that, you don’t have to throw 95 – you can throw 87 like he does. And that’s one of the best hitting teams in the country right there. Our numbers are very prolific – their numbers are even a jump up above ours. So to be able to do what he did was a great job.”
The Chants took a 3-0 lead in the second inning on a solo home run from G.K. Young, a bases-loaded sacrifice fly from David Parrett and an RBI single down the third base line by Michael Paez. Young added an RBI groundout in the fifth to make it 4-0.
And after doing his part, Hopeck turned the ball over to closer Mike Morrison.
That’s where the game got interesting as UNC Wilmington’s Gavin Stupienski led off the seventh with a double to centerfield, took third on a wild pitch and Morrison then walked Daniel Stack and Andy Austin to load the bases with one out. Zack Canada followed with an RBI single to center to make it 4-1 with the potential tying runs on base.
But after a mound visit the Chants left Morrison in to clean up the situation, and that’s exactly what he did while answering back with consecutive strikeouts of Robbie Thorburn and Kennard McDowell to end the inning.
“I got [Stack and Austin] to counts I thought I could strike them out in and I made a couple pitches that were a little bit too in the dirt, I would say,” Morrison said, recapping that pivotal inning. “And they took and took and took, the same pitches they swung at later in the game. I felt like they had a report that I was going to try to bury stuff with two strikes and they’re really good hitters. They have four or five guys hitting .350. I didn’t want to make a pitch to where they hit a double in the gap and get that momentum. A walk there, it’s not good, but we had first and second base open there so I trust my stuff enough to try to go for the punch out there.”
That’s the only trouble he would encounter while throwing three innings and matching a career-high with seven strikeouts to earn his sixth save of the season.
Young, meanwhile, finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a run as the only Chant to record multiple hits. His homer was his 15th of the season to give him the team lead and the most by a Coastal Carolina player since Jose Iglesias hit 16 in 2010. It was Young’s fourth homer in the last seven games.
“I feel real good at the plate right now. I’m relaxed. I’m hunting one pitch and it’s been working out for me,” Young said.“... I’ve set my standards very high my whole life. I’m very pleased to have reached [that home run total], but I don’t want to stop here. I want to continue going – not only me, but Zach [Remillard’s] got 14, Connor [Owings has] got 13. It’s crazy how this lineup has hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
Added Morrison: “It’s fun to watch as a pitcher.”
That leaves the Chants with three more regular-season games as they host Campbell, which is in second-place in the Big South, for a three-game series Thursday through Saturday while looking to further boost that resume.
Getting the win Tuesday night was a nice start to the week, though.
“All wins are important. That was a big win just because they’re playing very well, they’re a nationally-ranked team. That’s one of those resume things,” Gilmore said. “And plus we hadn’t played in our ballpark in a long time it seemed like. It was nice to have a chance to win in front of our home fans. We’ll have another test on Thursday. We face last year’s player of the year in our league, he’s been pitching great so it’s not going to be any easier.”
NOTES: Young has now reached base in 20 straight games. ... Remillard had his 15-game hitting streak snapped Tuesday night. ... Centerfielder Billy Cooke continued to shine defensively, making an impressive running catch in the gap and later a diving grab. ... The start of the game was pushed back more than an hour due to rain. ... The game Saturday is free as part of fan appreciation day.