And when two teams are as evenly matched as No. 7 Virginia (45-8, 22-8 ACC) and No. 2 North Carolina (47-8, 21-7 ACC), games can sometimes come down to just one bad hop.
One ball that doesn’t fly quite as far as it seems like it should.
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One small fielding mistake.
One base-running mistake.
And that’s how it ended on Saturday, as Virginia took the game — and the series — from North Carolina with an 8-7 win in 11 innings. The game ended as bizarrely as one could imagine: Down 8-4 in the bottom of the 11th, North Carolina rallied and cut the lead to 8-6 with just one out, after Colin Moran knocked in a run.
UNC head coach Mike Fox brought in freshman Michael Massardo to pinch-run for Moran.
Then freshman Skye Bolt came to the plate, one of UNC’s best hitters, with two on base. He blasted a pitch into deep left center that looked like a sure home run. Everyone thought it was gone. Bolt did. Fox did. Moran did. And unfortunately for UNC, so did Massardo.
Virginia’s Mike Papi snagged the ball, which seemed to die in the air, just before it hit the wall. That was the second out of the inning. UNC’s Logan Lassiter tagged up from third base and scored, but by then, Massardo had sprinted from first and was nearly at third. All Virginia had to do was throw to first to complete the inning and win the game.
Just like that, the rally was over. Of Fox’s 1,900 career games, he never saw an ending like that. “When they were coining the phrase games of inches, they were probably talking about something just like that,” he said.
His team was dominated by Virginia in the series opener, and then Game 2 was a UNC comeback win. Game 3 was virtually even throughout, and it played that way. When Bolt’s ball died right at the wall instead of sailing over it, it felt like the baseball gods were being cruel.
Fox knows that’s just baseball, though. He’s had teams get tantalizingly close to winning the College World Series, only to fall just a game short. His team started out 39-2 this year. While this team is very good, it’s almost impossible to keep winning at that pace. And the Tar Heels haven’t, dropping six of their last 14.
You have to be good, yes. But you also have to be lucky.
After a bad outing from ace Kent Emanuel on Thursday, starter Hobbs Johnson gave Carolina a fantastic 8 2/3 innings, including retiring 19 straight Virginia batters at one point. He said this team is not worried about losing two series in a row after not having dropped one all year long. They know their luck can change again quickly, and they saw enough success in the first part of the season to know to trust the process.
“Everybody comes in here and works the same whether we win or lose,” Johnson said. “(Virginia) hit some balls on the screws that just found the hole. I know last night, I counted about 15-16 that we hit hard, just right at people. It’s just baseball.
“We’ve been unlucky some and we just haven’t really pitched as well as we usually do. Our hitters for the most part have given us enough runs to win. We’ve just gotten a little bit unlucky and haven’t made good pitches when we’ve needed to.”
Fox knew his team would hit a rough spot, relatively speaking. And he said back in April that he wanted to see how his team responded to it. He’s been pleased so far, and he’s still not concerned yet.
The real season starts when the NCAA tournament begins, Fox said. But he does want to see a few things change when his team plays against Florida State on Monday and then plays the ACC Tournament next week in Durham.
“The next 4-5 games just should be fun, but we do need to play a little bit better, make plays. We do need to get some of our guys going offensively a little bit,” Fox said. “This game is so mental. You can go from high to low very quickly and we’ve got to work on that a little bit, get them out of a funk.”