Baseball: Ga. Tech trips No. 1 UNC in 11 innings

ATLANTA — Here are three things we learned from Georgia Tech’s thrilling 9-8 victory (11 innings) over top-ranked North Carolina on Sunday.

1. Yellow Jackets head coach Danny Hall is a gamblin’ man

With the score knotted at 8 in the 11th inning, and runners on first and second with zero outs, Georgia Tech’s Zane Evans came to the plate with two scenarios at play — both positive:

a) Attempt a bunt against new reliever Reilly Hovis, with the intent of advancing his teammates Kyle Wren (second base) and Brandon Thomas (first base) 90 feet on the base paths.

Or …

b) Swing away at the plate, with the hopes of clinching Georgia Tech’s series victory over the nation’s No. 1 team.

“I didn’t want to bunt there,” recalls Hall, the Jackets skipper and third-base coach during the final stanza, explaining that a sacrifice bunt would probably lead to the Tar Heels intentionally walking Daniel Palka — Georgia Tech’s most complete hitter — thus leaving the potential for a force play at any base, with Sam Dove batting in the 5-hole.

“I wanted to give those two guys (Evans, Palka) a chance to win the ball game.”

With Wren getting a good lead at second base and ready to pounce on contact, Evans ripped a base hit to left field that was fielded cleanly by the Tar Heels . . . right about the time Wren rounded third base.

“I knew that I probably shouldn’t have (sent Wren on Evans’ hit),” said Hall with a big smile. “But he’s my fastest runner. And I kept thinking, ‘If they make a great throw, they make a great throw.'”

The outfield toss actually had good velocity . . . but it was slightly off center, allowing Wren just enough open space to get under any tag and score the walk-off run — from a game that Tech, by most accounts, had no business winning, down 8-3 in the seventh inning.

But hey, that’s baseball.

It’s also a little surreal that, while following Georgia Tech for its two-game series against Ohio State this week (shameless plug for Part Iand Part II), coach Hall continually stressed that no five- or six-run lead is ever safe in college baseball — even with the recent changes in aluminum bats (reduced ping).

And he was right.

Down 8-3 in the seventh, Mott Hyde (who belted a walk-off blast in Friday’s win) crushed a two-run homer.

Two innings later, Hyde walked, Mitch Earnest singled and Wren got hit by a pitch, loading the bases. After a fielder’s choice scored Hyde, Evans (0 for 5 at the time) notched a single up the middle (scoring Earnest) . . . setting the stage for Palka, down just one.

The game-tying hit to right field “felt pretty good,” said Palka (1 for 4 with one RBI). “I was sitting on a slider and was able to get the barrel of the bat” on the ball.

2. Rough weekend aside, it’s easy to see why UNC (45-6, 20-5) holds the nation‘s No. 1 ranking

It’s hard to differentiate one North Carolina team from another, since the program has produced countless alums in Major League Baseball, while sporting a legacy of five ACC tourney titles, nine College World Series appearances and nine ACC championships (regular season).

But here’s a snapshot of the Tar Heels’ dominance in 2013:

**Of the pitchers with six or more starts, the entire quintet (Trent Thornton, Hobbs Johnson, Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss, Chris Munnelly) boasts ERAs of 2.96 or less.

**Seven hitters (with 100 at-bats or more) claim batting averages of .297 or higher.

**UNC’s average margin of victory in conference play is 5.9 runs.

**The Tar Heels have lost only one weekend series this season — to the Yellow Jackets. In fact, prior to Friday, Georgia Tech was the last team to pull off the feat against North Carolina (April 2012).

3. Georgia Tech secured a berth in the ACC tourney (May 22-26 in Durham) with Sunday’s victory

Technically, the Yellow Jackets (32-20, 14-13) locked up a tourney slot sometime around the 10th inning — after Virginia vanquished Duke, 14-6 — making the result against the Tar Heels a moot issue (in one regard).

But on this day, there were no thoughts of what took place in Charlottesville, Va. . . . just warm, happy memories from Georgia Tech knocking off a juggernaut on the same day its eight pitchers surrendered nine walks and struck four UNC batters (including three from Jackets starter Jonathan King).

“I’m glad we ended it when we did,” said Hall, who didn’t have to tap into the contingency (emergency?) plan of using Josh Heddinger — Tuesday’s likely starter vs. Georgia — against North Carolina.

For the record, the Jackets burned through King, Cole Pitts, Sam Clay, Joe Wiseman, Jared Jillson, Palka and Evans on the day, with Evans (three innings, zero runs allowed) closing it out and tallying the win.

“Zane held the fort for three innings, and obviously got a big hit. But we just kept battling, we needed to today,” Hall said. “And (the Heels) are a very good team, they’re at the top of our league. So, to win this series is big for us.”

Georgia Tech, last year’s ACC tourney champions, still has a chance to improve its seed, when it closes the regular campaign against Miami next weekend.

“It means a lot. Our league is really hard. The tournament is huge,” said Hall, in his 20th season with Georgia Tech. “But I’m thinking our goals are a lot higher than making the tournament. We’ve got a big week, and hopefully we can go into the ACC tournament hot.”