NC State, Miami cap off Day 4 of ACC Tournament with a thriller
DURHAM, N.C. — The ACC Tournament had seen weather that alternated between too hot and too cold and nighttime crowds that were relatively low-key.
But Friday night between No. 5-seed NC State (33-20) and No. 2-seed Miami (43-14) was a beautiful combination of atmosphere with a lively crowd on hand and a fantastic baseball game, one that NC State ultimately won 5-4 in 12 innings. It was the first extra-inning game of the Tournament.
Miami was the No. 1 team in the RPI and the No. 2 seed in the ACC Tournament, and it showed why for the majority of that game against NC State, getting out to a 2-2 lead before the Wolfpack rallied to tie it in the third and immediately respond to take a 4-2 lead in the fourth.
But NC State just kept hanging around, chipping one run off of the lead to make it 4-3 in the sixth, but leaving two on base that inning. Miami left three on base in the top of the ninth with a chance to break the game open, and then NC State got runners on second and third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Andrew Knizner — down to his final strike of the game — swung at a 1-2 pitch and plated the man at third to tie the game. The NC State faithful on hand — most of which were already on their feet — roared with glee.
"Sometimes they’re there, it’s a lot of people," NC State head coach Elliott Avent said. "Tonight, they were there and loud. They were loud. That kind of keeps you going a little bit as a team."
"The atmosphere was awesome. State fans, they’re awesome, and they create an environment that’s fun to play in," NC State reliever Jon Olczak said.
The extra innings didn’t disappoint, either. In spite of losing all the momentum and with the crowd against it, Miami didn’t stop fighting, particularly on defense.
Miami couldn’t solve the riddle of NC State’s bullpen, though — a bullpen that pitched the final 6 2/3 innings of the game allowing no earned runs and just one hit, striking out 12.
In the bottom of the 12th, Miami left the door cracked open just enough. Preston Palmeiro (yes, Rafael’s son) was the first at-bat of the inning. Before he went to the plate, he told his teammates he was going to end it.
Miami freshman Carl Chester’s attempted throw to second was wild, and bounced all the way over by first base before it could be corralled. Palmeiro managed to beat the tag at home for a walk-off, inside-the-park home run.
"Honestly, I was a little worried because if he had caught it, then I was out by a good 20 feet and I had run all that way," Palmeiro said. "But I was just going to do everything I could — jump over him, get around him, I don’t know. I would’ve found a way to be safe.
"That was a Little League home run, but I kept telling people that I was going to end it. I guess that does the job, so I’ll take it."
Lost in all the hubbub and excitement — and some of the confusion that comes with pool play format — was that NC State clinched its spot in the ACC Championship game. The Wolfpack can finish no worse than 2-1 in pool play, and they hold a tiebreaker on both teams that will play against tomorrow and each have one loss in Notre Dame and Miami.
"Three or four weeks ago, people questioned if we were going to even make it into the ACC Tournament and now, we have a chance to win it," Palmeiro said.
Avent’s team has been the victim of plenty of bad luck — or, as some would call it, baseball — all season long. They’re a young group with some key seniors, and rather than pout about their misfortune, they kept fighting.
They’ve now won 12 of the last 14 games and are as hot as any team in the country.
"It’s what they’ve done all year. Even when we lost, we were playing good. This is a good league. This is a hard league. We lost two one-run games at Florida State and two one-run games at North Carolina. This league will just beat you up," Avent said.
"This team just kept walking ahead and persevering, persevering, sticking together. You knew at that point if they could do that, then hopefully the sun’s going to smile on you here once in awhile. We got a little bit of sunshine and we’ve been running with it."
The appetizer game before it wasn’t bad, either — especially for a game that didn’t mean much.
When North Carolina (34-24) and Clemson (32-27) faced off in the mid-afternoon game in the ACC Tournament’s final day of pool play for each, there was nothing on the line. Not technically anyway.
Both teams were teetering on the edge of the NCAA Tournament, and both were eager to prove to the committee that they belonged in their final chance to do so.
North Carolina got the better of the Clemson by a 6-3 final, and it made the Tar Heels feel a little bit better about their chances. They entered the ACC Tournament on a six-game skid, and won the play-in game over Virginia Tech, but lost their first two games in pool play to Louisville and Florida State before beating Clemson.
"I think if we go 0-3, I think there’s a reason probably to leave us out. So this was a big win for us. Is it enough? I don’t know," North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. "I hope we’re in. This is kind of a little bit new territory for us, somewhat.
"I still think it’s about wins. I still think you have to have enough wins. I think our RPI obviously the number that I know is good, but I don’t think that’s enough to get you in. I hope our league gets eight, and we’ll just see if we’ve done enough. We’ve had some good wins. We’ve had some tough weekends. I know they look at your last ten or 12 games. And that’s not in our favor right now. But we’ll just see. Hope for the best."
North Carolina has made the postseason every year since 2002, but it sweated out some selection shows during that stretch. It just hadn’t happened in awhile.
Injuries, youth, bad luck — a variety of factors contributed to the Tar Heels’ disappointing season (by their standards). Either way, they hope to make it right in the NCAA’s.
"We’re not immune certainly to this type of season. It was a struggle for us at times. We lost some really close games early in the season. We lost some leads that we couldn’t hold, and I think that kind of shook our team little bit," Fox said. "Lost little bit of confidence along the way, but regrouped enough.
"It’s been a combination of a lot of things. We haven’t been a great team driving in runs, taking advantage of opportunities. To get 40-plus wins and put yourself in that category, you have to be really good at that. And I also think there’s a lot of really good teams out there. We had a lot of them play well against ours. That’s out of our control. But we have to play better against them if they’re playing well."
Fox acknowledged his team got a little bit lucky — Clemson committed four errors — but they’ll take it at this point.
"We’ve been playing competitive baseball. We’ve been in every ballgame, we feel. A swing of the bat, a made play….It’s a breath of fresh air to get a win," junior Skye Bolt, whose three-run homer in the third propelled the Tar Heels.
"It’s really important going into this Regional here, and I’m pretty positive we’re going to make it. Again, can’t stress enough how much it is to swing momentum for this last hurdle of our season."
Clemson, meanwhile, certainly came into the ACC Tournament on a hotter streak than North Carolina and probably helped itself more than the Tar Heels did in that way.
North Carolina is 25 in the latest RPI, though, and Clemson is 53.
The Tigers have made the NCAA Tournament all but once since 1987 and six straight seasons (dating back to 2009), but they haven’t advanced out of Regionals in four years. Should the Tigers not reach Omaha this year for the College World Series, it would be their longest CWS drought since 1980-91.
Fans are getting a bit restless with head coach Jack Leggett, who’s been the head man in Clemson since 1994. The loss to North Carolina means that they might have reason to be nervous when the field is announced.
"I think we’re deserving and I think we’re a good enough team. Our body of work, we had some rough edges early in the midweek and the weekends. We’ve got some starting pitching; we’ve got some good baseball players. We’ve done some good things against top-10 teams," Leggett said.
All the Tigers can do now is wait.
Like Bolt, though, Clemson star Tyler Krieger has decided to take a positive approach.
"I don’t think you sit there and think that you’re never going to get an opportunity. I always think optimistically good things are going to happen to good people," Krieger said. "I believe we have a lot of good people in this program. I’ll be waiting until Monday, but find ways to keep getting better, so I have an opportunity to keep playing."