DURHAM — It doesn’t seem fair to call the Tar Heels’ 2-1 victory over N.C. State just one game. North Carolina (51-8) edged N.C. State (44-14) in the longest game in ACC Tournament history: 18 innings. (It was juuust a bit shy of the ACC’s longest game ever, which was 25 innings.)
None of the 11,392 fans (a collegiate attendance record for the state of North Carolina) wanted to leave, but as Saturday night melted slowly into Sunday morning, many did.
While the 18 innings were essentially two full games worth of baseball, it felt like two separate games. A tale of two halves. Like in basketball or football, or any game with a clock. Only baseball doesn’t have a clock, and when these two teams were locked up at a run apiece, it seemed like the game would go on forever.
The “first” game should have been won by Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon, who got a no-decision after 10 spectacular innings. He faced 36 batters and struck out 14, allowing just one hit. A run scored while he was on the mound, but it wasn’t earned. He was charged with an error on the play that ultimately scored a UNC run, and despite his dominance, that was what haunted him nearly four hours after the fact.
“I definitely learned something from that play — never take my eye off the ball again. Ground ball to first, you’re always going to first as a pitcher. I was getting over and I was waiting for Tarran (Senay),” Rodon said. “I was looking for a double play there and I had my eye on Tarran until they got to first and then I was looking at second and the ball just got on me when Tarran, I guess he didn’t go to second with it, he went to first with it and I got caught by surprise there.”
But after Rodon had thrown 130 pitches, he had to leave the game in the 10th — and it’s not like the Tar Heel bats exploded after that. Really, there was never a time in this game where either team’s bats exploded. Unless they exploded from swinging them so hard at obvious balls.
N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent wasn’t used to seeing his team strike out in crucial situations. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot easier to get (the team’s) attention on two-strike approach, putting the ball in play,” Avent said. “You can give Carolina credit, but there’s other good pitchers out there in the country and we’ve got to be equally effective to make sure this doesn’t happen again. As tough as it is to swallow tonight, maybe tonight’s game is going to be the eye-opener to make sure we’re playing to go to Omaha in a couple weeks.”
It was a pitcher’s duel for much of the evening. Rodon and reliever Grant Sasser combined for 12 2/3 innings and allowed a total of three hits. UNC starter Hobbs Johnson struck out nine batters and allowed just one run in 5 1/3 innings, then freshman reliever Trent Thornton added 6 2/3 innings of no-hit ball.
On the flip side, both teams had bad at-bats, defensive miscues and other head-scratchingly silly plays that marred what might have been a near-perfect defensive battle. “Tonight, I saw some of the best baseball I think I’ve seen, and I saw some of the worst,” North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said.
North Carolina’s Chaz Frank, who had half of the Tar Heels’ six hits, played all 18 innings. He also played 14 innings the night before in a thrilling 12-7 victory over Clemson. Like everyone watching the game at home and in person, he too wondered if anyone was actually going to, you know, win the game.
“I felt like nobody wanted to win the game. There were so many opportunities for them to win the game, so many opportunities for us to win the game. I’ve never been a part of a game like this,” Frank said. “It wears you out a little bit, but you’ve just got to grind through it and that’s been the mantra of this team is grinding through every inning and playing to the end, and that’s what we did.”
Eventually, the Tar Heels were able to push across one run in the 18th after N.C. State reliever Chris Overman — who hadn’t allowed an earned run all year — walked his first batter and hit the second.
In the bottom of the 18th, N.C. State was able to get a runner to third base with no outs. (“Honestly it was just so late, all my nerves had just gone to sleep,” UNC reliever Chris Munnelly said of facing hat situation.)
Two relatively shallow pop-ups and a ground-out later, it was over. Six hours and three minutes after it began.
Frank — and some of his teammates — have now played 32 innings in the span of a little over 24 hours, and they’ll have to play at least nine more on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech. The Hokies have not played since Friday afternoon.
“It’s going to be tough to strap it on in the morning. We might not go to sleep. It might be better,” Frank said with a grin. “We’re excited to be in the ACC final. I’ve never been in it in the past three years I’ve played here. I think all of our guys are excited to be in the ACC final, no matter what time it is.”
On the N.C. State side, the Wolfpack just have to wait and see if they have done enough to earn a national seed. The ACC likely won’t get four, and Virginia, North Carolina and Florida State were thought to be locks before the tourney. Florida State beat N.C. State in a three-game series a few weeks ago, but the Seminoles went 0-3 in the ACC Tournament.
Avent hopes N.C. State’s recent surge will play a role, and thinks his team proved something to the nation that was watching his team stahe an epic battle with the Tar Heels.
“I’m sure the entire country was watching this game. It was probably the only game going on this time of night,” Avent said. “If you watched this game, you obviously understand there’s two national seeds in this game. If we aren’t a national seed, I’ll just be shocked.”