GREENSBORO — The stakes weren’t what they were last summer in Omaha, at the College World Series, and they weren’t what they were a season ago when North Carolina and N.C. State played in the ACC tournament. Yet they were large nonetheless.
A must-win? Mike Fox, the Tar Heels’ coach, might not have gone that far.
“That’s a pretty strong (description) – a must-win,” he said after UNC’s 4-3 victory against the Wolfpack in an ACC baseball tournament play-in game Tuesday. “I mean, we knew this was a really very important game for us. Just didn’t want to take any chances of maybe what could happen going further here.”
Had the Tar Heels lost, their time in Greensboro would have been short-lived. They would have returned to Chapel Hill, their time in the ACC tournament over, and they would have endured a tense six days before learning whether they’d made the NCAA tournament.
As it is, though, UNC’s season lives on – thanks in part to an apparent blown call whose memory will endure and thanks to relief pitching that was as clutch and good as it has been all season. The first of those things – the apparent blown call – the Tar Heels had no control over.
In the top of the fifth inning, N.C. State shortstop Trea Turner attempted to steal home and appeared to slide under the tag that Korey Dunbar, the UNC catcher, applied at the last second. No matter. Home plate umpire Mark Chapman called Turner out.
Had Turner been called safe, the game would have been tied at 4, and maybe N.C. State and UNC – no stranger to marathon ACC tournament games – would have played on into the evening. Fox, who called it a “courageous play,” said he hadn’t seen a replay and he didn’t have much to say about the play.
Fox had a clearer recollection, though, of his bullpen’s performance: no runs and two hits during the final 5 2/3 innings. Trent Thornton, UNC’s No. 1 pitcher, reprised his role as a closer and entered the game in the eighth inning with nobody out and runners on second and third.
“We were hoping that it would work out that way, that we would be able to bring him in the game with the lead,” Fox said.
Thornton struck out the first two batters he faced, then loaded the bases on an intentional walk to Turner, the Wolfpack’s leadoff hitter. Then Thornton ended the inning with a fly ball to center, and ended the game with a 1-2-3 inning in the ninth.
Thornton, UNC’s closer last year during his freshman season, said coming into the game late and with the lead “was kind of what I wanted.”
“I told (UNC pitching) coach (Scott) Forbes after the game that I really missed that adrenaline and everything,” he said. “So I was really prepared for that time of the game.”
Thornton finished what UNC’s other relievers started.
Spencer Trayner came on in the sixth with two on and two out and coaxed Turner into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.
“All three of them came in and did exactly what we needed them to do,” Fox said of Zach Rice, Trayner and Trevor Kelley.
With the victory, UNC extended its season and likely ended N.C. State’s. The Wolfpack could make the NCAA tournament – N.C. State coach Elliott Avent made his team’s case after the defeat on Tuesday – but the odds seem long.
“It always feels good to beat State,” Michael Russell, the UNC senior shortstop, said. “I don’t know what it is about it. … I guess it is that rivalry. A lot of us know each other, and it’s just a real fiery atmosphere whenever we play each other. It was a really weird game – things going back and forth – and it was exciting and fun.”
Russell’s throwing error in the eighth allowed the Wolfpack to have runners on second and third with nobody out. Then Thornton entered the game and ended it and, with it, N.C. State’s hopes.
The game on Tuesday was the latest in a recent run of memorable ACC tournament games between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack.
They played 12 innings two years ago in Greensboro and 18 innings last year in Durham. Both ended in UNC victories – 4-0 in 2012 and 2-1 last year – and the result was the same this time.
The setting and the stakes, though, were different. In each of the past two years, UNC and N.C. State played in front of sold-out, record-setting crowds. NewBridge Bank Park was about half filled on Tuesday for the 11 a.m. start – a lot of would-be attendees likely sitting at work in offices nearby.
Fox called it “an incredible game,” and “what everybody would expect when we get together.”
Now, though, UNC will enter tournament pool play with a pitching staff that has already been taxed. The Tar Heels will play against two of the best teams in the country – Virginia, on Wednesday night, and Florida State on Friday night – in their next two games.
“We’ve got a couple of guys we could pitch tomorrow,” Fox said. “Two or three. That’s about it. I’ll let coach (Scott) Forbes figure that out. Obviously, this is the position that we’re in. We’ll use some guys, and we’re just going to have to piece it together.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter