DURHAM — Usually Mike Fox would have had his North Carolina players up early for a team meal but this wasnt the usual. After the Tar Heels 18-inning victory against N.C. State ended minutes before 2 a.m. on Sunday, Fox said he told his team to sleep as long as possible.
We didnt even feed them this morning, he said.
Fox wasnt sure what hed see when he encountered his players before UNC played Virginia Tech in the final game of the ACC Baseball Championship. Would the Heels be tired? Lethargic? Would there be anything left? Fox wondered. He instead sensed a quiet confidence that he spoke of after UNCs 4-1 victory against the Hokies.
The victory, which gave UNC (52-8) its first ACC baseball tournament championship since 2007, was anticlimactic in its ease and quickness. The Tar Heels never trailed. And after playing 32 innings between 7 p.m. on Friday and 2 a.m. on Sunday, nine innings seemed almost like a warm-up, like a bodybuilder playing with a light weight.
Fox didnt hear this, and he didnt say it himself, but he sensed victory against the Hokies (38-20) almost as soon as the game against N.C. State ended. The Tar Heels bus didnt pull off the curb at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park until about 2:30 a.m.
I really think our players after last night, I really think everybody thought it was pretty much our championship to win after last night, Fox said. I didnt say that or hear anybody say it but you could just sort of sense it this morning that hopefully we didnt go through all that last night for nothing.
Its bullpen depleted by two long games the second of which, against N.C. State, was the longest in ACC tournament history UNC turned to seldom-used freshman Taylore Cherry, a right-hander who had pitched three and one-thirds innings all season. He made his first collegiate start on Sunday.
Cherry, who threw more pitches on Sunday than he had all season, admitted he was a little nervous but it didnt much show. He escaped his most serious trouble in the fifth inning, when the Hokies, trailing 2-0, loaded the bases for Chad Pinder, Virginia Techs No. 3 hitter.
On a 3-2 pitch, Cherry came inside with a fastball a pitch that UNC assistant coach Scott Forbes said took some cojones and coaxed Pinder into an inning-ending groundout to short. Fox was the first person out of the dugout to congratulate Cherry, who received all the support he needed with a pair of runs in the first and third innings.
Landon Lassiter, who scored the game-winning run against N.C. State, scored both of those off of RBIs from Skye Bolt, and UNC added a couple of insurance runs in the eighth. By then, Trevor Kelley, who relieved Cherry with no outs in the sixth, was in control.
The Tar Heels bullpen, strong throughout the tournament, excelled again on Sunday. Kelley pitched the final four innings and allowed just one hit and no runs. For the tournament, UNCs bullpen pitched 24 and two-thirds innings, allowed eight hits, one earned run and struck out 20. Fox said the bullpen certainly was the story.
Those guys grind out and they work and they feed off each other, said Forbes, the UNC pitching coach. And theres no egos and all they want to do is win. As far as a bullpen performance, I havent seen much like that and I hope it will carry us through in the postseason.
After the final out, the Tar Heels celebrated near the pitchers mound. They put on championship hats and T-shirts, and snuck up behind Fox and emptied the water cooler on him. In his 15th season at UNC, Fox has built a perennial contender. Hes no stranger to teams with the potential to reach the College World Series.
Yet this UNC team, ranked No. 1 nationally throughout most of the season, was the first in six years to win the ACC tournament. Heels first baseman Cody Stubbs, center fielder Chaz Frank and pitcher Kent Emanuel all made the all-tournament team, and Stubbs was named MVP.
Fox said what most carried UNC, though, was a sense of toughness. After a 10-0 victory against Miami on Thursday, UNC came from behind to beat Clemson in 14 innings on Friday night. Then came the 18 innings against N.C. State in front of a crowd of more than 11,000 largest ever to see a college baseball game in North Carolina.
That made Fox believe that maybe this was destiny that UNC hadnt come this far for nothing.
Theyll be able to always say they were 2013 ACC champions and they played in an 18-inning game, and they played in front of the biggest crowd, Fox said. There are a lot of great memories from this tournament that theyll be able to take with them."