CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina (56-9) has played a lot of extra-inning games in the last few weeks. Too many for UNC and Skye Bolt, in fact. Down to the last out in the bottom of the ninth inning tied at 5-5 with South Carolina (42-19), Bolt came to the plate with Parks Jordan on second base.
Extra innings seemed inevitable. But not if Bolt had anything to do with it.
“I think it’s something that, more than anything, has irritated us,” Bolt said. “We don’t want to continue to put ourselves in such a situation. We know that we can do it, but who wants to play 14 innings when you can play nine and get the victory? It’s something that you could sense in the dugout, that we wanted to get it done.”
Bolt has struggled some at the plate since coming back from a broken foot a month ago, and he was moved from the No. 4 hole to the No. 7 hole in UNC’s batting order in Monday night’s regional final. He was back at the clean-up spot on Saturday, and the switch-hitter was 2-for-5 against South Carolina’s lefty-heavy pitching rotation.
But he was facing South Carolina’s closer Tyler Webb, who hasn’t given up much this season. And Bolt had just one thought running through his head: “Don’t miss it.”
He wasn’t thinking about redemption. He wasn’t thinking about showing head coach Mike Fox a thing or two for moving him down in the order the previous Monday. He was relishing the situation.
“I think it’s every guy’s dream as a hitter. It’s a situation that you’ve got to live to be put in,” Bolt said. “You’ve got to want to be in that situation. I love being in that situation and you’ve got to thrive off it.
“My only job when I go out there is to play my hardest and help us win a ballgame. If that’s in the seven-hole, nine-hole, four-hole like today, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to go out there and try to win that man a ballgame.”
And that’s what he did with a walk-off RBI single that scored Jordan from second base and gave the Tar Heels a 6-5 victory.
It was certainly frustrating for South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook. His team notched 15 hits and chased starter Kent Emanuel from the game in the third inning. It was a back-and-forth game that South Carolina led 4-2 when Emanuel left the game. The Tar Heels took a 5-4 lead in the sixth before South Carolina came back to tie it at 5-5 in the top of the eighth.
Still, the Gamecocks have been somewhat offensively challenged this season and couldn’t turn 15 hits into more than five runs. They left 12 men on base and committed three errors. “You come into this situation hoping to get to Game 3. We’ve still get a chance to do that,” Holbrook said. “We’ll find a way to scratch and claw and see if we can win one tomorrow and then play one for all the marbles, I guess. That’s what our mindset’s got to be. That was kind of our mindset coming up here, I guess. Let’s get to Game 3 and see what happens. We still have an opportunity to do that — we’re just going to have to play a whole lot better tomorrow to get to Game 3.”
When South Carolina gets as much offense as it did and Emanuel pitched as badly as he did and the Tar Heels still manage to get a win, it almost seems like it was meant to be that way. Parks Jordan has the lowest average in the UNC lineup, and he led off the bottom of the ninth with a double. Even though South Carolina had managed to tie the game, UNC was far from deflated. They’d come back from worse.
“Obviously, we’ve had some pretty emotional games the last couple weeks, and it’s awesome, especially a game like today,” The team, everybody, it’s unbelievable how we pick up each other. If a pitcher goes out there like (Emanuel) and struggles a little bit, that’s rare for him and we just know that, and he knows, that we’re going to get his back and pick him up.”
He’s the most unlikely suspect of them all, and yet he came through. It’s the little things like that that get under the skin of UNC’s opponents, that even the No. 9 hitter can get a clutch hit. And it’s pretty much the reason UNC has lost just nine games all season.
Bolt had been in a bit of a slump, but he didn’t mind. It took just one clutch swing of the bat to get out of it. But he says it could have been anyone. To him, the Tar Heels’ extra-inning drama recently has only made them stronger.
“This is, as a whole, one of the greatest teams I’ve ever seen or been a part of. It starts from the seniors on down, those freshmen, pitchers to the hitters,” Bolt said. “It’s resiliency all the way through the lineup and it’s resiliency all the way through the pitching staff. Every guy goes up there looking to help us win the ball game and to do their part.”