“They were all very aggressive, and I knew if I threw first-pitch strikes and got ahead I’d give myself the best opportunity to be successful,” Gaines said. “Fortunately I did throw a lot of first-pitch strikes, and once I got ahead, I could kind of work off the plate. Fortunately they kept chasing, and we played great defense behind me.”
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound hurler started with fastballs and then switched to his breaking ball earlier in the count. Gaines threw six strikeouts and only gave up three hits, two of which were home runs by Patrick Koontz.
“The dude just had my number,” Gaines said of Koontz. “I made him look bad the first at-bat on a split and got ahead of him with two strikes. I threw a bad one that was up, and he capitalized on my mistake. The second time I started him off with a fastball. It went right over the plate, and he hammered it. I just got beat by that guy.”
Koontz may have won those battles, but Gaines and the Tar Heels won the war. The senior from Weddington, N.C. has needed a good dose of perseverance during his five-year career in Chapel Hill. Gaines was the team's top mid-week starter in 2009 when an elbow injury required Tommy John surgery -- the second such surgery of his career -- and a lengthy rehabilitation process followed, limiting him to only 9 1/3 innings in 2010. Wednesday's start was his second of the 2011 season and seventh appearance overall.
This season he has served the role if the team’s inspirational leader, often sharing a word of encouragement with the other players. He sometimes speaks at the pre-game chapel services, sharing passages from the Bible that apply to the situation.
During some of the team's brief rough patches earlier in the season, Gaines’s messages revolved more around staying the course and remaining confident, but now that North Carolina has rediscovered its winning ways, winning eight straight, he emphasizes humility.
“We’re playing really well,” Gaines said. “If I can just encourage everyone to keep doing what they’re doing I think we’re going to be successful, so I might try to reiterate that. We can’t think we’re better than we are, because we still have a lot of goals we want to reach. If I can just remind everybody that you've got to play hard every day like they’re doing now, because we’ve got a great team, but we haven’t proven anything yet.”
Gaines did not speak to the team before tonight’s game, but did his talking on the diamond. He threw 70 pitches, 51 of which were strikes.
“You always know what you’re going to get from Bryant,” UNC catcher Jacob Stallings said. “He’s going to throw strikes. He’s going to work fast, so he keeps the fielders in the game. He’s just going to throw a lot of strikes, and with an aggressive team like they were tonight they swung on a lot of pitches. He only made two mistakes, and they happened to be against the same guy.”
North Carolina and Gaines both needed those six innings. The Tar Heels got experience from someone outside their normal starting rotation to improve to 39-10 with only seven regular season games remaining. Gaines got the opportunity to provide a valuable contribution on the mound - the possibility of which was put in doubt just a couple years ago.