CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 2 North Carolina needed just one win over No. 7 Virginia out of a three-game series to clinch the ACC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament. Virginia took Game 1, but UNC came back from a 5-2 deficit to win 8-5 on Friday night in Game 2 of the series.
It is UNC’s first ACC baseball title since 1990.
But Virginia’s stellar play made it seem like the Tar Heels were going to have to wait until Saturday to claim that title. Or maybe that Virginia was just going to go ahead and take that title back to Charlottesville.
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Five innings into Game 2, Virginia held a 4-2 lead and UNC just could not get anything going offensively. The Tar Heels (48-7, 22-6 ACC) had chances in the early innings, but just couldn’t muster a rally. It seemed like every ball the Tar Heels hit was right at a waiting Cavalier.
UNC head coach Mike Fox kept writing ‘hard-hit ball’ on his lineup card, and after he had done that around 15 times, he looked up at the scoreboard and his team only had seven hits.
He started to wonder if it just wasn’t UNC’s night.
Virginia (44-10, 21-9 ACC), like Carolina, is a team that doesn’t hurt itself much with mistakes offensively or defensively. And so in the top of the seventh, after UNC reliever Chris McCue was facing a two-on, no-out situation, Virginia gave UNC an opening the size of a pinhole. But it was enough.
UVa first baseman Jared King flew out, and catcher Nate Irving was out on the base paths. After having two on with no outs, all of a sudden, McCue had two down and had prevented Virginia from extending the lead.
“That was big. That was huge,” Fox said. “(McCue) makes a really, really good pitch, 3-2 (count), and they were running which surprised me a little bit in that situation with no outs but that was huge to get out of that inning with no runs.”
Virginia would add one more run in the eighth, and Fox felt deflated at that. A two-run deficit is a lot more manageable than a three-run deficit, after all.
It turns out it didn’t matter.
That pinhole widened significantly in the eighth inning when Virginia shortstop Nick Howard made the only error of the game by either team, mishandling a ball that should’ve been an easy out at first and letting UNC’s Brian Holberton reach base.
The floodgates opened.
Reliever Kyle Crockett, who hadn’t lost a game all season, allowed a triple (which scored an unearned UNC run) and hit a batter. Then Mike Zolk, who was responsible for two of UNC’s three runs to that point, came to the plate.
“I feel like we can always fight back,” Zolk said. “We’ve put up six and seven run innings 2-3 times in a week, including our midweek games, so I feel like that could happen at any point.
He was right. He got his second triple of the game to knock in two more runs and tie the game with no outs, starting that aforementioned big inning off right. UNC’s next four batters would reach base, three more runs would score and finally, the Tar Heels got to enjoy one of their patented big offensive innings.
Nothing had gone right for UNC for 16 innings. All of a sudden, something did. That was all it took.
“You’ve got to keep playing all the way through the game because you just don’t ever know,” Fox said. “The game can turn on a dime. That’s what kind of unique and frustrating at the same time about baseball, is you just don’t ever know.”
It can be frustrating to play against a team like that, one that rarely gives up anything easy. But that’s a warm-up for what the Tar Heels will face when postseason play begins next week with the ACC Tournament. Virginia had been making the Tar Heels pay for every mistake, no matter how trivial it seemed, and UNC was able to turn the tables in the eighth.
More importantly, though, that eighth inning was proof to UNC that, in the words of Dennis Green (sort of), they are who they thought they were. “I think that eighth inning just opened up everything for the rest of the season,” Zolk said. “I think we’re going to get back on track.”
And they want to continue to prove that. The Tar Heels had a few rainouts on the ACC schedule, and it’s a bit unbalanced, so they want to continue to prove that they’re the actual ACC champions by, you know, winning.
Having won the title, there’s some element of pressure being lifted — Fox said his wife is relieved, his players are excited and he’s some combination of both — but the Tar Heels didn’t get to this point by being complacent.
“I think we want to go ahead and make the statement that we are the best team in the league and we’ve got a chance to do that even tomorrow,” Fox said. “I challenged (the team) … to come out tomorrow and prove that. So we’ll play hard tomorrow.”