North Carolina entered Saturday needing to win four games in three days to keep its season alive, to keep alive its hope of reaching the College World Series, but coach Mike Fox said he wouldn’t remind his players of the considerable challenge before them.
No, Fox said after the Tar Heels’ stunning loss against Davidson on Friday night, his message would be clear and simple: Just win one. UNC did that on Saturday with an 8-1 victory against Michigan – a win that extends the Tar Heels’ season by at least another game, and another day.
The victory came hours after Fox told his players to ignore, as best they could, the stakes. A defeat would have brought an abrupt ending to a record-setting season in which the Tar Heels won more ACC games (23) and more conference series (10) they ever had.
“Don’t think of this as an elimination game,” Fox said he told his team.
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He said the found that phrase – “elimination game” – to be wrought with negativity. These days, though, they’re all elimination games for the Tar Heels. They appeared to handle the pressure with ease on Saturday. Afterward players said they felt loose. They kept their routines the same.
Tyler Lynn, a senior outfielder, said he he woke up and thought: Today doesn’t feel like my final college game. And so it wasn’t.
Now UNC, the top seed of the Chapel Hill regional and the NCAA tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, will have to win twice on Sunday, first against the loser between Davidson and Florida Gulf Coast and then later against the winner of that game. Those teams play each other on Saturday night.
If UNC (48-13) wins two games on Sunday, it would then have to win one more on Monday to advance to a Super Regional. Fox’s message will remain the same, though: Don’t think about the entirety of the task ahead. Focus instead on what’s directly in front.
For UNC on Saturday, that was Michigan (42-17), which was in the loser’s bracket after its defeat against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday. Both the Tar Heels and Wolverines were playing to keep alive their seasons, and Michigan led 1-0 after four innings.
During those first four innings UNC played as though it was still mired in the hangover of a shocking defeat that wasn’t yet a full day old. Collectively, the Tar Heels stood in the batter’s box as if in a slumber.
They managed just one hit in those first four innings. In the field, they allowed base runners after soft hits bounced off of bare hands and, once, when first baseman Zack Gahagan simply dropped a routine throw from the left side of the infield. For a while, UNC was a team that Fox likely didn’t recognize.
And then things changed in the fifth, and they changed, mysteriously, after UNC’s therapy dog wandered onto the Boshamer Stadium field for a few seconds. The dog, a 2-year-old golden retriever named REMINGTON, spends games inside of a crate in a hallway behind the dugout.
He escaped, though, and made his way into the dugout and then onto the field. He trotted toward home plate while the UNC supporters, who hadn’t found much reason to cheer for more than an hour, took delight in the cameo. Even Michael Hendrickson, the Michigan pitcher, clapped softly.
Yet moments later Hendrickson lost his command, and Michigan lost its slim lead. Hendrickson, his pitches untamed, hit two batters and then walked Brian Miller, the UNC leadoff hitter, to load the bases with two outs. Then Hendrickson walked in the tying run.
And then Ashton McGee, the freshman second baseman, gave the Tar Heels the lead for good with a single to right field that drove in two runs. Somewhere, REMINGTON had to be happy: Before his appearance UNC had done nothing offensively. Shortly after, it had taken the lead.
“I think a big thing was taking advantage of our opportunities, and I think we’ve done that all year, with teams making errors or walks,” McGee said, and none of the Tar Heels’ eight hits carried the significance of his in the fifth, which gave UNC its first lead of this regional.
The Tar Heels’ onslaught continued in the sixth. They scored three more runs, same as the number of pitchers Michigan used to escape the inning, and the runs came while the Wolverines continued to locate pitches anywhere but the strike zone.
During the fifth and sixth innings, Michigan pitchers walked five batters and hit two others. The Tar Heels turned those seven free passes into six runs, and they scored that many amid only two base hits. But the hits came eventually, too, including Cody Roberts’ two-run double bounced alongside the left-field foul line in the seventh inning.
And with that, UNC’s lead grew to 8-1. While Michigan’s pitching staff conducted a several-innings long exercise in futility, Luca Dalatri, the Tar Heels’ 6-6 freshman right-hander, threw seven masterful innings. What worked for him on Saturday?
“I guess everything, if you want to say that,” he said. “From the beginning, I felt like I commanded all four pitches for strikes.”
One of the few mistakes Dalatri made landed well beyond the right-center field fence – a home run that Michigan third baseman Drew Lugbauer sent soaring into the trees behind the outfield wall in the second inning. The mistake didn’t linger, though, and Dalatri said he quickly focused on the next hitter.
“Home runs happen,” he said.
Other than the home run, Dalatri often avoided trouble. He allowed five hits and struck out six during his seven innings and, equally important, his durability allowed Fox to avoid taxing his bullpen, which could be asked to play a significant role on Sunday and Monday.
At least, the Tar Heels hope to playing Monday. If they are, it means they will have won twice on Sunday, though Fox will continue to caution his team against thinking that far ahead.