UNC outlasts NC State, wins 2-1 in 18 innings

Staff writerMay 26, 2013 

— It was in the late, long hours of Saturday night, after it'd turned into Sunday morning, when for the first time Mike Fox attempted to describe what he’d just watched and been a part of. What Fox wanted to say, maybe he couldn’t. Perhaps it was a sense of deliriousness or exhaustion. Or both.

After 18 innings and more than six hours, it was over. North Carolina’s 2-1 victory against N.C. State on Saturday night came in the longest game in the history of the ACC baseball tournament, and in front of the largest crowd -- or at least what was left of it at Durham Bulls Athletic Park -- to watch a college baseball game in North Carolina.

The game began at 7:41 on Saturday night. It ended at 1:51 on Sunday morning. It was past 2 a.m. by the time Fox, in his 15th season as UNC’s coach, walked into an interview room and faced the cameras. He looked tired and happy. He sat down behind a microphone, glanced at a box score and began his opening comments with this:

“I don’t have the words to describe what I just saw.”

Who could have? Before Saturday, N.C. State and UNC had played 283 times. The 284th might have been the greatest of them all – the kind that will live on when players tell their children about it one day and when spectators, especially those who remained until the end, thumb through a scrapbook and travel back at the sight of a ticket stub.

Even then, where will those stories and those memories begin? With the performance of Carlos Rodon, the N.C. State sophomore left-hander who pitched the first 10 innings, allowed one hit and struck out 14? With UNC’s bullpen, which allowed four hits and no runs in 12 and two-thirds innings?

Will the stories begin with the close calls, and the what-ifs? With how Colin Moran, the UNC junior third baseman who’s one of the best hitters in the country, stranded five runners – four of them in extra innings? With how N.C. State had the tying run on third base with nobody out in the 18th, and left him there? With how two other times in extra innings, the Wolfpack needed just one hit to drive in the winning run from third? With how UNC, one of the best hitting teams in the country, had just six hits in 61 at-bats?

If we’re telling stories one day about this, we need to remember all the strikeouts. The teams combined for 43 of them – tied for second-most in a game in NCAA Division I history. Rodon had those 14 but Hobbs Johnson, the UNC starting pitcher who lasted into the sixth inning, had nine. And Trent Thornton, the Tar Heels freshman who relieved Johnson in the sixth, struck out seven and didn’t allow a hit in six and two-thirds innings.

“You’ve got to appreciate good pitching,” Fox said. “You’ve got to appreciate great pitching. Oh, my word. We knew we had to match Carlos almost pitch for pitch and just try to keep the game close and even manageable, and we somehow were able to do that.

“And then Trent Thornton comes in and does what he does after Hobbs just gives us a great start.”

When N.C. State and UNC played each other in the regular season in late April in Raleigh, seats sold out days in advance of the start of the three-game series. The Tar Heels won the first of those games, and the Wolfpack the second, but the third game was rained out.

If that was a divine way of building suspense for this, the finale, it worked. Rodon, a sophomore who earned first-team All-ACC honors for the second consecutive season, has been at his best repeatedly against the Tar Heels. But this might have been the best of his best.

His final line: 10 innings pitched, one hit, one unearned run, two walks and a hit batsman to go along with the 14 strikeouts, which were two short of tying his career high. The performance was reminiscent of the one he gave against UNC a year ago during the ACC tournament in Greensboro, where Rodon held the Heels scoreless through nine innings before UNC prevailed in the 12th.

He was nearly unhittable that night, and even more so on Saturday night.

“He always pitches on the biggest stage the best,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “And tonight might have been the best I’ve ever seen him pitch.”

Back in January, Rodon traveled to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park for a photo shoot with Baseball America. The national magazine put him on the cover, along with teammate Trea Turner and UNC’s Colin Moran and Kent Emanuel. A bold headline appeared over the four players: “Tobacco Road to Omaha.”

Rodon on Saturday pitched in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the second time since coming in to have his picture taken. He might have imagined then, in January, what a night like Saturday might be like: UNC and N.C. State meeting in the ACC tournament with a chance to advance to the championship game.

“When we showed up here in January (for a photo shoot), I wasn’t expecting an 18-inning ballgame,” Rodon said. “But it was fun to play.”

More than an hour before it began the streets filled outside the stadium with people wearing red and light blue, a throng of thousands waiting to get in. A few empty seats remained in the early innings, but there appeared to be none after the third or fourth.

Rodon and Johnson were in control then, alternating strikeouts and hitless innings while fans of both schools traded cheers – “Tar! … Heels!” in one moment followed by “Wolf! … Pack!” the next and so on, until the sounds of one melted into the other, indistinguishable.

The Wolfpack struck first, and scored its only run in the sixth when Grant Clyde’s double off the wall in left-center field drove home Tarran Senay, who had doubled with one out. The way Rodon was pitching, the lead nearly seemed insurmountable – and it might have been if not for back-to-back Wolfpack errors in the eighth.

It was then when UNC second baseman Mike Zolk walked, and then moved to second on a passed ball. Parks Jordan reached on an error by Clyde, the Wolfpack’s third baseman, and Jordan’s presence on first base led to another error.

This one came when Chaz Frank hit a routine ground ball to the right side. Senay, the first baseman, fielded it and hesitated. He thought about throwing to second to try to get Jordan out, but instead rushed a throw to first, where Rodon was unprepared for the throw. It rolled to the fence near the UNC dugout, and Zolk scored the tying run.

Rodon, nearly flawless otherwise, was charged with an error on the play.

“I definitely learned something from that play,” Rodon said. “I’ll never take my eye off the ball again. A ground ball to first, you’re always going to first as a pitcher. I was waiting for Tarran (Senay) and was looking for a double play. I had my eye on Tarran until I got to first and then I was looking at second and the ball just got on me.

“I guess Tarran didn’t go to second and it caught me by surprise there.”

That’s how thin the margin was on Saturday night: Rodon’s lone mistake, which didn’t even come on a pitch, was the difference between winning in regulation and going into extra innings.

Both teams had plenty of chances there, too. Yet every time, innings ended on strikeouts or fly-outs or pop-outs. UNC went through a similar thing the night before, before its 12-7 victory against Clemson ended in 14 innings. But the for the longest time, there was no end in sight early Sunday morning.

“It was kind of rough sometimes,” Frank, UNC’s center fielder, said. “I felt like nobody wanted to win the game. There were so many opportunities for them to win the game, so many opportunities for us to win the game. And I’ve never been a part of a game like this.

“This was definitely the longest. Last night might have been the second-longest.”

The Wolfpack’s best chance to win came in the 13th, when they loaded the bases with one out. But Chris McCue, the Tar Heels’ third pitcher, struck out the next two batters to end the inning. The second strikeout came on a 3-2 pitch against Brett Williams, whom McCue retired on a difficult breaking pitch low and away. After he swung and missed, Williams crouched to the ground and grabbed his helmet. The game went on.

And on. And on. Until the 18th.

By then only a few thousand, if that, remained from the crowd of more than 11,000. UNC’s Landon Lassiter walked to start the 18th, and Chris Overman’s pitch then hit Moran in the foot. With two on and nobody out, Avent brought in Will Gilbert, who’d made just nine appearances all season.

Two batters later, after Lassiter moved to third on a fielder’s choice, Cody Stubbs sent him home with a shallow single to center field. After nine scoreless innings, Stubbs' hit broke the tie. The Wolfpack squandered another opportunity in the bottom half of the inning, when Williams led off with a double and advanced to third on a wild pitch.

The game had gone on too long for Chris Munnelly, UNC’s fourth pitcher of the night, to feel nerves.

“It was just so late all my nerves had gone to sleep,” Munnelly said.

And so his approach was simple.

“I was just trying to get the three outs so we could go home,” Munnelly said. “But really just trying to get ahead of every batter – that’s the main thing. Just getting ahead and pounding the (strike) zone, and try to let the infielders make the play they did.”

With Williams standing on third, Munnelly retired the first two outs on soft fly balls – the second one an infield pop-up. Then Logan Ratledge grounded out to third and that was it.

N.C. State entered Saturday night with hopes of bolstering its chances of earning a national seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Avent believed his team had accomplished enough to do so, and he said he’d be “shocked” if the Wolfpack weren’t among the top eight seeds in the tournament when those are announced on Monday.

For the second consecutive night, meanwhile, Fox spoke of being privileged to be a part of something special. The first of those games was the 14-inning victory against Clemson. And now there was this victory, which sent the Heels to the tournament championship game against Virginia Tech.

“I’m not sure we deserved to win, but it’s certainly a shame somebody had to lose that one,” Fox said. “I was happy to be a part of it. As somebody said, that’s a game I’ll always remember. I’m sure these guys will as well. I guess we should apologize for keeping everybody here so late, as well.”

Somebody asked him if UNC would be rested enough for the championship game, which was set to begin about 10 hours after the victory against the Wolfpack ended. Fox wasn’t worried, he said, about his players. They’re young.

Frank interjected.

“We’re not going to sleep,” he said.

“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Fox said. “A few Red Bulls and they’re probably ready to go at 1 o’clock, whatever. They’ll be ready. I mean, this is something we’re excited to be a part of.”

UNC is seeking its first ACC tournament championship since 2007. Fox attempted to explain the significance of that, and how the tournament champion is considered the true conference champion. His explanation came out somewhat jumbled, though. “That made no sense, but I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m delirious, I’m dehydrated. I kept asking the umpires – please y’all go get something to drink, because I kept reminding them, when you’re dehydrated the first thing that goes is your vision.”

People laughed and Fox apologized again and said, “That was awful.”

It was late – early, really – and Fox didn’t quite know what to say or how to say it. All he could say is that he was happy to be a part of this, even if he couldn’t put into words. Then again, he didn’t need to. Six hours, 18 innings and the largest crowd to ever watch a game in this state said enough.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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