Game Seven Special for UNC

Cody Stubbs was the hero of UNC's Game Seven, hitting an RBI single in the 13th inning.
Cody Stubbs was the hero of UNC’s Game Seven, hitting an RBI single in the 13th inning.

This time of year, “Game Seven” has special meaning.  With the NBA and NHL playoffs underway, it represents the do-or-die nature of a winner takes all contest.

Game Seven is also crucial in college baseball regionals, for the same reason. For a regional to last seven games, a team from the loser’s bracket must win two games on Sunday, including one against a fresher team that is 2-0 in the regional, to force a Monday rematch.

Georgia Tech and North Carolina found themselves coming into Game Seven from opposite directions. The Yellow Jackets were the team that stunned Vanderbilt with a 5-0 win Sunday night to force one of the nation’s best teams to come back on Monday. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels came back to Boshamer Stadium after a 3-2 loss Sunday night to Florida Atlantic, facing the possibility of a 54-win season ending in the first weekend of the playoffs.

Georgia Tech, unfortunately, was in no position to produce a Monday miracle against Vanderbilt, considered the best team in the nation by Baseball America.  With a depleted bullpen after four games in three days, Georgia Tech trotted out ace pitcher Buck Farmer (who tossed 58 pitches on Saturday) for the elimination game.  He struggled, and the Commodores cruised to a 7-1 victory.

Oddly enough, North Carolina also recycled starters during their game Monday.  The Tar Heels held a 6-2 lead after seven innings, but Florida Atlantic singled twice to put runners on first and second in the eighth inning. Rather than going with a reliever such as Chris McCue or Reilly Hovis, head coach Mike Fox called on Kent Emanuel, who had thrown 124 pitches Saturday against Towson, to get out of the jam.

He did so, but then Emanuel came out for the ninth inning. The junior allowed a home run, a single, and three walks before he was relieved … by Benton Moss, who had tossed 90 pitches as Friday’s starter.  Tyler Rocklein promptly launched a grand slam to left field off Moss, giving the Owls an 8-6 lead.

I’m no doctor, so I’ll leave discussions of pitch counts and their long-term effects on a potential major league pitcher like Emanuel to those more qualified.  However, with Fox’s career-long reputation of protecting pitchers and a bullpen that had performed admirably during an ACC Tournament that featured two extra-inning games, the decision to rely on tired starters rather than fresh bullpen arms like Hovis (who had not pitched at all during the regional) was puzzling.

Somehow, that decision did not cost the Tar Heels the game and the season.  In the bottom of the ninth, North Carolina rallied to put two runs on the board and force extra innings once again.  The Tar Heels had a chance to win it in the 11th, but left two runners on base to end the inning.

Then Levi Meyer launched a three-run homer for the Owls in the 12th inning against McCue, who entered the game in the 10th.  The emotions of the fans at Boshamer Stadium by this stage had hit every slot on the spectrum. Anticipation of next weekend’s super regional with the early lead, anxiety with Emanuel’s insertion into the game, despair after the 9th inning grand slam, exuberance with the rally to force extras.  Now, once again, the Heels trailed.

And, once again, the Heels rallied. North Carolina scored two runs on bases-loaded walks, then Mike Zolk singled home Brian Holberton for the tying run.  Cody Stubbs, the potential winning run, was thrown out at the plate, but the season was still alive.

Finally, in the 13th, the Tar Heels broke through.  With the bases loaded, Stubbs singled down the left field line to score Colin Moran, ending the game after nearly five hours (not including a two-hour delay for rain prior to its start).  For North Carolina, it was a moment of exhilaration, as they secured the chance to host South Carolina in a best-of-three series starting Friday. For FAU, it was the disappointment of knowing their season was over, just one night after beating the top overall seed in the tournament and mere minutes after being ahead twice in the late innings.

For better or worse, many of the details of this game will be forgotten with time. Rocklein’s grand slam was left off SportsCenter’s Top Ten for the day, a mere four-RBI home run in a losing effort. The intense criticism of Fox at the time he first called for Emanuel will subside to some extent, since they were ultimately victorious.

However, the game itself will never escape the memory of the players, coaches, or fans who watched. What more could you want from a Game Seven?

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  1. I wasn’t familiar with the details of the UNC game until just now. Sounds like a huge roller coaster ride. Extra-inning games that go into the night like that can be draining just to watch on TV … much less play in!

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