CHAPEL HILL — There were officially 3,517 people in Boshamer Stadium on Monday night, almost all of whom were still there Tuesday morning.
In a decade, 10 times that many will claim to have been there. In a generation, countless thousands will tell their kids they were there the night North Carolina played the baseball game that wouldn’t end, with the Tar Heels’ season hanging in the balance.
Twice, Florida Atlantic hit what looked and felt like game-winning home runs – a grand slam in the ninth, a three-run shot in the 12th.
Twice, North Carolina rallied back before Cody Stubbs singled with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 13th as the Tar Heels averted disaster with a 12-11 win, moving on to host South Carolina in next weekend’s Super Regional.
This game had everything. Controversial pitching choices. Bizarre umpiring. Amazing clutch hitting. An outfielder who spent 11 innings behind the plate. And a team that came back from two runs down and then three runs down with no margin for error.
“That might have been the greatest baseball game I’ve ever been a part of,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said.
Fox was also saved from a lifetime of second-guessing over his decision to turn to tired starters Kent Emanuel and Benton Moss in relief. Those two combined to give up six runs in the top of the ninth inning and turn what was once a comfortable North Carolina lead into a desperate situation.
How much Emanuel in particular will have left for the Gamecocks remains an open question, but the Tar Heels will for sure be without catcher Matt Roberts, who suffered a broken finger in the third inning when he was hit with a foul tip, forcing backup Brian Holberton to leave left field and put on the gear.
It started with a two-hour rain delay and ended well into Tuesday morning, full of twists and turns and pathos and drama, without a doubt the most heart-wrenching college baseball game played in the state of North Carolina in a long time.
“It was an unbelievable game, something I don’t know if this stadium has ever seen or might ever see again,” Florida Atlantic coach John McCormack said. “It’s just a shame we’re on the short end of it.”
No one was more relieved than Fox, whose use of Emanuel and Moss seemed odd at the time and near-catastrophic in retrospect. Closer Trent Thornton already had pitched four scoreless innings, but when he struggled, instead of going to another member of the bullpen, Fox brought in Emanuel, who had thrown 124 pitches only 48 hours earlier.
After last year’s debacle, when the Tar Heels lost to St. John’s on Saturday and Sunday on their home field, Fox would take no chances this time around, even if it meant risking the invaluable left arm of the ACC’s pitcher of the year on short rest.
“We felt like we owed it to our team to put our best guys out there to win the most important game of the season and try to advance,” Fox said.
It worked, if not exactly as planned, thanks in part to a lineup that had been struggling to hit with runners on base – the Tar Heels stranded 47 in four games – and finally came through when it mattered most.
“There was no way I wasn’t going to put the ball in play right there,” Stubbs said. “I told myself, no matter what, you’re putting the ball in play.”
Anyone who saw it will never forget it. And maybe even some who didn’t.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-812-7195