CHAPEL HILL — It was meaningless to the standings, and meaningless to North Carolina’s seeding in the ACC baseball tournament. Yet in the moment, it meant everything.
“It’s one of those swings where you don’t feel the ball hit the barrel,” Skye Bolt, UNC’s freshman right fielder, said of what was nearly a game-winning home run but instead the final play of the Tar Heels’ 8-7 loss to Virginia here on Saturday. “And got good some good backspin, I saw (the left fielder) turn his back.
“I thought I had everything into it. I felt a good swing. And thought it was out.”
Those who remained in Boshamer Stadium in the bottom of the 11th inning, thought so, too. Bolt came to bat with two runners on base and one out in the 11th inning. The second-ranked Tar Heels (47-8, 21-7) trailed by four runs at the start of the 11th, and they’d already created hope while cutting the deficit in half.
Then Bolt nearly won the game. If the ball had carried another foot or two, he likely would have.
Facing Virginia right-hander David Rosenberger, the Cavaliers’ fifth pitcher of the game, Bolt sent a 1-0 pitch to deep left-center field. Immediately, the crowd began to roar. And immediately, Michael Massardo, a freshman reserve whom UNC coach Mike Fox inserted as a pinch runner, took off from first base.
“I think he along with the rest of the crowd thought it was gone,” Bolt said.
It wasn’t, though. Mike Papi, the Virginia left fielder, made the catch at the wall. By the time he did, Massardo was near third base, where Landon Lassiter waited before tagging up and scoring.
All Virginia had to do was throw to first base to complete a double play. The Cavaliers did, and the game was over.
“A freshman just excited, (who) hasn’t been on the field in a while,” Fox said of Massardo. “I guess he’s thinking, ‘I’m going to score the tying run.’ I don’t know. I hadn’t really asked him. I feel bad for him.”
The final play was one last twist in a game with no shortage of them. UNC on Friday night had clinched the ACC regular-season championship, and the top seed in the ACC tournament, with its 8-5 victory against the Cavaliers (45-8, 22-8). Virginia entered Saturday locked into the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament, too.
Yet based on how the teams competed, it would have been difficult to guess they were only playing for pride. Hobbs Johnson, UNC’s junior left-hander, pitched into the eighth inning, allowed two hits and retired 19 consecutive batters during one stretch. He left after allowing one run, but was responsible for two runners who later scored.
The Cavaliers’ three runs in the eighth inning gave them a 4-1 lead. But the Heels tied it with two in their half of the eighth and one in the ninth when Colin Moran’s single to right-center field drove home Chaz Frank. Bolt nearly won the game then and would have had his sharply-hit grounder bounced a little higher.
Instead, Virginia reliever Josh Sborz fielded it and threw to first to end the inning. The Cavaliers then scored four runs in the 11th, with all of the RBI hits coming after UNC right-handed reliever Chris Munnelly entered the game with two runners on and nobody out.
Again, UNC rallied. And again, Bolt nearly won it. Instead, the Tar Heels suffered their second consecutive loss in a conference series. The Tar Heels on Monday will host Florida State, which won the ACC’s Atlantic Division, in a game that won’t count in the conference standings. Fox didn’t seem alarmed by his team’s recent struggles.
He instead spoke of a new season ahead in the postseason, and of the kind of game he hadn’t witnessed in a while.
“Incredible game,” said Fox, who said he’d never seen another end like the one on Saturday. “The Virginia coaches said you should make everybody pay again going out. I thought that was a classic line. That was worth the admission of two games. It probably was.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter