UNC baseball salvages postseason hopes with win over No. 4 FSU
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — One day at a time, one game at a time, one play at a time — those are cliches used all too often in sports.
But for North Carolina baseball — a team that dominated nationally last year only to fall in the College World Series and is still rebuilding a bit without some of its best players — that’s really what they are doing.
It was no easy feat for North Carolina (30-21, 14-13 ACC) to top No. 4 Florida State (39-12, 19-8 ACC). Nothing has come easily for the Tar Heels this season, though, and they were ready to fight to salvage a 5-4 win in the three-game series.
Right now, the Tar Heels are still in the ACC Tournament and in pretty good shape for the NCAA Tournament as well. But getting swept at home, even against a very good team, with four games remaining wasn’t going to help matters.
"You get swept this time of the year and you put yourself in a situation where it’s going to be hard to get to .500 in the league and some of your goals aren’t necessarily reachable. It’s really because of kind of where we are, the situation we’re in — trying to get to 30 wins, for one, but trying to get a few more ACC wins in there," UNC head coach Mike Fox said.
"I didn’t tell the team this, but I think there were eight teams going into today that had more ACC losses than we did, which is out of control. We weren’t in as dire a situation as maybe it seemed after the last two days. But if you look at what we’ve got ahead and that sort of scenario, we just needed to win."
And it was just that — a fight. Florida State didn’t get to where it is without knowing how to win, and when the Seminoles fell behind 4-0 after the fourth inning, it just seemed like a matter of time before they would claw their way back into the game.
Florida State chased UNC starter Zac Gallen in the fifth with a three-run inning to cut UNC’s lead to 4-3, and then in the top of the sixth, they didn’t even need a hit to tie it. Reliever Reilly Hovis, who surrendered the lead but then eventually got the win to bring his record to 7-1, threw a wild pitch that scored Hank Truluck, who had reached on a hit by pitch.
Yet another self-inflicted wound for the Tar Heels, who have been the victim of plenty of such self-harm this season.
Fox knew how badly this team needed the win, and surrendering a 4-0 lead that quickly was not going to be easy to bounce back from — even for him. But both he and his team had to do just that, and quickly.
"I can’t think about that. I’m in the dugout and I’m the guy. So I have to — whatever’s going through my head, I can’t — if it’s anything negative, I can’t let it out. I can’t let them see. So it’s about trying to maintain a sense of calm and encouragement," Fox said.
"I was just trying to remain calm and peaceful because I can’t — you can’t be otherwise. Too emotional, then you don’t play well."
In the bottom of the seventh, UNC freshman Tyler Ramirez strode to the plate with two down and two runners on base. He got ahead in the count 3-0 against Florida State’s closer Gage Smith, who had retired the first seven Tar Heel batters he faced.
Two Smith sliders later and Ramirez found himself facing a full count. He fouled off two more before what hitting what would eventually be the game-winning RBI.
"I just tried to stay focused. I kept fouling off some pitches that were tough pitches," Ramirez said. "(Smith) made some good pitches there. But I was just trying to stay focused and get a good pitch to hit."
Hovis, a sophomore, had missed some time with an injury and had his longest outing of the season in getting a win that he referred to as a "snake" — he was brought in to get the save, but ultimately got the win after his team got him a lead again.
UNC’s pitching had been up and down all weekend, and Hovis was not much better. But he battled through it and got the big outs when he needed to, something that hadn’t been happening for the Tar Heels.
"First two innings were a little rough, a little wild, but that insurance run helped me a lot," Hovis said of the run that gave the Tar Heels a 4-0 lead. "It helped me a lot. It helped me settle down."
Nothing about this season for UNC has been consistent. And it’s been a difficult adjustment for a program that’s the very model of consistency for the last 10 years or so under Fox.
Last year, the team went nearly two months without losing a game. This year, the team seemingly can’t go a week without dropping at least one.
When Florida State tied it, the Tar Heels could have folded up their proverbial tents mentally. But they didn’t, and they won’t. In the back of their minds, though, they knew what was on the line.
"It is hard. It’s hard not to look forward and it’s hard to play pitch-to-pitch and at-bat to at-bat, but that’s the way it’s got to be done," UNC senior Parks Jordan said. "In baseball, you’ve got to have a short memory. You can’t look ahead. But it is hard. Our coaches tell us all the time to go up there and play pitch-to-pitch. You’ve got to battle, especially when you play teams like this."
It wasn’t a series win, but for the Tar Heels, it was vital.
"It is a big deal," Jordan said. "That Sunday game, you want to bounce back after two losses and prove yourself a little bit and have the right answer to failure. It’s only one game, but at the same time, it still means a lot to our team going forward."
And taking a game off of two top-5 ACC teams in the past few weeks (at Virginia a few weeks ago, now Florida State) has given them some confidence.
"We’ve proven that we can play with the top teams in the country, beating Virginia and Florida State. Both of those teams are very, very good. I think it does a great deal for our confidence to get these two wins under our belt," Jordan said.
In both scenarios, UNC had to win the final game of each series to keep from getting swept. It’s certainly not something the Tar Heels are used to having to value as a program, but this young group is in need of all the momentum it can get right now if it wants to make its 13th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
"If you have to measure your team, you want to measure them kind of with their backs against the wall a little bit. We had that today, and we just kind of kept grinding. It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done. There’s no such thing as an ugly win, as they say," Fox said.
"We’re proud of our guys. We’re not going to quit. You see our guys running hard down the line and trying to leg out balls and playing hard, and you have to start with that and then the rest of it’s kind of gravy."
It won’t be easy, though, and it shows how valuable the one game at a time approach can actually be.
UNC was dominated in the first two games by Florida State, losing the two by a combined score of 17-2. But they bounced back and held on to beat a very good team, and a team that was clearly trying to win the game.
Now, UNC travels to Gardner-Webb on Tuesday before its final ACC series at Miami (34-14), a team that is as hot as any team in the country.
All Fox could do on Sunday afternoon, though, is smile and, finally, exhale.
"Yeah, I’m relieved … We’re just hanging by a thread. We’re just hanging in there. We have to be focused," Fox said.
"We can get close to that mid-30 range in wins, get in the ACC Tournament and get some wins — I think that’s where we’re going to need to get to. … I don’t know what the number is. We’re not going to worry about that. We’re just going to keep playing."