Classic! UNC rallies twice late, finally advances with 13-inning win

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 4, 2013 

— Heartbreak turned to jubilation for North Carolina on Monday night, and then turned back into heartbreak, and back into jubilation again. Monday night turned into Tuesday morning. Things changed in an instant: Momentum, the direction of a season. One ended and one survived. Finally.

“Baseball’s a crazy sport,” Chaz Frank, the Tar Heels senior, said earlier this week. UNC and Florida Atlantic provided unimpeachable testimony to that on Monday night and Tuesday morning in a game that had to be among the craziest of them all. It ended after 13 innings with UNC’s 12-11 victory.

Cody Stubbs, the senior first baseman, drove in the winning run with a bases-loaded single to left. As Landon Lassiter crossed the plate, the Tar Heels poured out of the dugout and mobbed Stubbs, and celebrated the end of a game that lasted nearly five hours, and ended after 1 a.m.

With the victory, the Heels (55-9) advanced to an NCAA Super Regional. They will host South Carolina this weekend.

But the wild ending at Boshamer Stadium early Tuesday morning only did justice to what came before.

Twice FAU took a late lead on a multi-run home run. And twice the Tar Heels, three outs from elimination, tied the score in the bottom half of the inning.

In the 12th, FAU catcher Levi Meyer hit a three-run home run off of Chris McCue, the Heels’ fifth pitcher, to give the Owls an 11-8 lead. But it was only a few innings earlier when the Heels found themselves in a similar position, faced with the prospect of their season ending. And again, UNC tied it.

Landon Lassiter led off the bottom of the 12th with a single to right, and after Colin Moran walked, Brian Holberton loaded the bases with no outs for Stubbs, whose walk scored a run.

FAU (42-22) changed pitchers, relieving Hugh Adams with Michael Sylvestri, who had pitched two scoreless innings in the Owls’ victory against the Heels on Sunday night. Michael Russell, the first batter Sylvestri faced, walked on five pitches. Another run was in. Now FAU's lead was 11-10. Nobody out, bases still loaded.

After Sylvestri nearly hit Skye Bolt on a 1-1 pitch, Bolt hit a line drive back to Sylvestri with the first out. Mike Zolk, who had tied the score with a two-run single to right in the ninth, singled again. Holberton scored, but Nathan Pittman, the Owls’ center fielder, threw out Stubbs, the potential winning run, at the plate. The game played on.

But that inning only enhanced the drama. More than an hour earlier, UNC had held a 6-2 lead entering the ninth inning, and somehow lost it with two of its best pitchers on the mound.

The Heels had been one out away from heading back to a Super Regional for the first time since 2011, one out away from winning an NCAA tournament regional for the seventh time in school history. But then heartbreak struck for the second consecutive season, in the worst way imaginable for the Tar Heels.

Leading by four entering the top of the ninth, UNC allowed FAU to score six runs. The final four of those came on a grand slam from Tyler Rocklein, the Owls’ cleanup hitter whose two-out home run over the left field wall left the crowd at Boshamer sitting in stunned, sad silence. Rocklein’s Owls’ teammates, meanwhile, spilled from the dugout in celebration.

Rocklein’s grand slam came off of Benton Moss, the Tar Heels’ second pitcher of the inning. Normally UNC’s No. 2 weekend pitcher, Moss entered the game in relief of Kent Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year. Emanuel, who made his second relief appearance of the season, escaped trouble in the eighth but couldn't close out the victory in the ninth.

He allowed a leadoff home run to Corey Keller, his second of the game. And then Emanuel loaded the bases with two outs for Moss, who had struggled recently. Rocklein was the first batter Moss faced, and there was no doubt about his home run as soon as it left the bat.

At that moment, UNC’s season appeared over. It appeared as over as it FAU’s did when the Tar Heels took a 6-2 lead into the ninth inning.

But Stubbs led off the bottom of the ninth with a double off of Hugh Adams, the Owls’ fourth pitcher. Michael Russell followed with a single to shallow center and then, after an out, stole second to put runners on second and third with one out.

That’s when Zolk, the Tar Heels’ second baseman and one of two members of his team’s lineup that bats less than .300, came through with a single to right. Stubbs raced home and Mike Fox, the UNC coach, frantically waved Russell home. His slide easily beat the throw, and the game was tied.

It remained that way until the 12th, when FAU went ahead and when, again, UNC came back in the bottom half of the inning.

The Heels entered the game without having lost consecutive games all season. It’s a streak that’s still alive, along with their season, after one of the wildest games that could have been played.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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