Hokies, Heels To Conclude Dramatic Tournament

North Carolina has played 32 innings of baseball since Virginia Tech clinched a spot in the ACC title game.
North Carolina has played 32 innings of baseball since Virginia Tech clinched a spot in the ACC title game.

A lot has happened since Virginia Tech’s last game.

When the pool play schedule was released for the ACC Baseball Championships, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech appeared disadvantaged to the higher seeded Florida State and Virginia in their pool.  While the Hokies and Yellow Jackets had to play three games in three days, the Seminoles and Cavaliers would get a day of rest before their final game.

Instead, the Hokies clinched a spot in Sunday’s title game, ruling the Florida State-Virginia contest moot for the purposes of determining a conference champion.  That did not prevent the two teams from battling for a last win before submitting their resumes to the selection committee.

With Florida State in danger of losing a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament after losing three games this week, the Seminoles took a 4-1 lead in the sixth inning on a Casey Smit RBI double.  However, Virginia answered with two runs in the sixth and a game-tying sacrifice fly from Mike Papi in the eighth, sending the “meaningless” game to extra innings.

Ultimately, Kenny Towns hit a three-run homer for Virginia in the bottom of the 12th to give the Cavaliers a 7-4 win, dropping Florida State to 0-3 in the tournament. As it turned out, that would make the game shorter than two of the three Pool A games that took place after the Hokies’ clinched a championship berth.

Friday night, North Carolina and Clemson played another game of no consequence to the tournament.  After NC State defeated Miami, the only contest that mattered in Pool A was Saturday’s UNC-NC State finale.  However, Virginia Tech’s success put the Tigers in a position where they needed wins to preserve a chance of hosting an NCAA regional.

Clemson had one big win in the bag Friday night, leading the Tar Heels 7-2 after eight innings. Instead, North Carolina rallied to tie the game in the ninth, behind a three-run homer from Brian Holberton.  That game would play on for another five innings, before another five-run rally for UNC would give them a 12-7 victory.

The Tigers were forced to turn around from Friday’s late night failure and face Miami in a battle of 0-2 teams on Saturday. While Clemson was able to get another hour of rest as a result of the Virginia-Florida State game, it was not nearly enough. The Hurricanes dominated from first pitch, as Clemson hitters struggled against junior southpaw Bryan Radziewski. The first team All-ACC pitcher struck out five Tigers while limiting them to four hits over eight innings in Miami’s 7-0 win.

Thus, a tournament-record crowd of 11,392 fans came to Durham to watch the Wolfpack-Tar Heels duel, roughly 19 hours after UNC had finished a come-from-behind win.  We had only just begun.

The game began as a battle of pitching brilliance, as North Carolina’s Hobbs Johnson went toe-to-toe with another first-team All-ACC pitcher in Carlos Rodon, the national strikeout leader.  Johnson struck out nine Wolfpack hitters in before being removed after back-to-back doubles in the sixth inning. The Tar Heels went to freshman Trent Thornton, who posted the league’s lowest earned run average, and he struck out Brett Williams and Bryan Adametz to strand Grant Clyde at second.

Meanwhile, Rodon would battle on, tallying strikeout after strikeout.  The game went to extras after Chaz Frank reached base on an error charged to Rodon, allowing Mike Zolk to score from second base.  Rodon also went to extras, throwing 130 pitches over 10 innings.  Rodon allowed just one hit and two walks over that span, striking out 14 Tar Heels before finally being lifted in favor of Grant Sasser.

Inning after inning passed, with both teams getting chances to break the deadlock. Frank got to second base on a single and a balk in the 11th, but Sasser struck out the next three hitters to strand him.  He was on third in the 13th after a two-out double and a wild pitch, but Colin Moran flew out to left field.  He was on second in the 15th after a single and an error, but was thrown out at third tagging up on another Moran fly out.  UNC also had Skye Bolt on second in the 14th, but two strikeouts and a ground out left him there.

NC State loaded the bases in the 13th, but Chris McCue struck out Clyde and Williams.  The Wolfpack had runners on second and third in the 14th, but a Jake Fincher fly out ended that threat.  NC State loaded the bases in the 17th, but Clyde popped up to Moran to terminate that rally.

Finally, North Carolina scored at roughly 1:35 a.m, as Cody Stubbs singled to score Landon Lassiter in the 18th inning.  However, NC State immediately placed a potential game-tying run in scoring position in the home half with a Williams double.  The Wolfpack center fielder moved to third on a wild pitch, needing just a deep fly ball or a well-placed ground ball to bring him home. NC State produced neither: Two shallow pop-ups and a ground out to Moran finally, mercifully ended the game, with the Tar Heels claiming a 2-1 win.

Thus, UNC will face Virginia Tech today at 1:00 p.m.  While Virginia Tech had Friday off, the Tar Heels’ off day came Wednesday, on the first day of the tournament.  Thus, the Coastal Division champions will be playing this afternoon, eleven hours after playing their 40th inning of baseball since Thursday.

Maybe the schedule was kind to the Hokies after all.  It gave them plenty of dramatic baseball to watch over the past day and a half, too.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.


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