CHAPEL HILL After 54 victories and the best regular season in school history, after winning the ACC tournament last week with a series of dramatic triumphs, it comes down to this for North Carolina: It must-win Monday to keep alive its season, and keep alive hope of reaching the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The Tar Heels entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed for the first time in school history. But after a stunning 3-2 defeat against Florida Atlantic on Sunday night, the fate of UNCs season will rest with the Tar Heels rematch against the Owls on Monday.
The winner will advance to a Super Regional. For the loser, the season will end.
For a long time Sunday night, it didnt appear that UNC (54-9) would find itself in such precarious position. Behind a strong pitching performance from Hobbs Johnson, who didnt allow a hit in six innings, UNC held the lead throughout against the Owls (42-21), who defeated Towson in the early game Sunday to advance to play UNC.
It all changed, though, in the seventh inning, after Johnson walked the Owls leadoff hitter and then left the game. With two runners on and one out, Florida Atlantics Ricky Santiago drove Trevor Kelleys 1-1 pitch over the fence in left-center.
At once, the three-run home run ended the Tar Heels no-hitter and erased the Owls two-run deficit. The Tar Heels, who were the designated visiting team, stranded a runner in the eighth inning and another in the ninth. And so it ended the Owls with a dramatic come-from-behind one-run victory, and the Tar Heels with 15 stranded runners.
It was a lack of focus for our team, because thats not like us, said Chaz Frank, UNCs senior center fielder and leadoff hitter who went 4-for-5. We have two of the top RBI guys in the nation. So its very different, very unlike us to leave guys out there that much. But it happened. Baseballs a crazy sport.
The events of the seventh inning proved that, when Florida Atlantic used its first hit to do something UNC most often failed to do with its 12 hits: drive in runs. The Tar Heels left two runners on base in the first, second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
In the sixth, after two singles and a walk, UNC had the bases loaded and nobody out for Colin Moran, the Tar Heels third baseman whose 84 RBIs are a school record. In the Florida Atlantic dugout, coach John McCormack thought if his team could hold UNC to two or three runs, it might have a chance.
Moran, though, hit a weak ground ball back to pitcher Kyle Miller. He threw home for the first out of a double play, and UNC ended the inning without scoring. Later, UNC coach Mike Fox paused for a while when asked about Morans recent struggles the at-bat in the sixth the most glaring example of them.
I dont know, Fox said. Its unlike Colin.
It also was unlike UNCs bullpen to falter. The Tar Heels relievers were dominant during the teams run to the ACC tournament championship last week in Durham. Kelley, though, allowed the three-run home run to third batter he faced.
Fox considered leaving Johnson in the game longer, but his control waned as the game progressed.
I always want to stay in, but my control was an issue all day, said Johnson, who walked five.
UNCs loss Sunday was similar to one it suffered exactly a year earlier against St. Johns. In that one, the Red Storm hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Tar Heels. In both that game and the one Sunday, the winning home run came from the No. 8 hitter in the lineup.
Fox spent a while with his team after the loss Sunday. Later, when he addressed reporters, he spoke of UNCs resolve and its ability to come back after difficult defeats.
This clubs pretty much led themselves all year, he said. And as everybody knows, we havent lost two games in a row all year long. So well focus on that. I trust my team and have got some good leaders in there. Im sure theyre not very happy. And we do have another game to play.
A season ago, after that loss against St. Johns, UNC won its next game before losing in the rematch against the Red Storm. And just like that, a promising season came to an end. Those defeats provided inspiration for the Tar Heels, and some players spoke last week about the lessons those losses provided.
Now the Tar Heels find themselves in a similar position, needing a victory to keep playing. Frank, for one, tried not to allow himself to think that the game Monday could be his last.
Im not looking at it like its my last game, he said. Because I dont believe it is.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter