North Carolina’s most important baseball game of the season immediately became an afterthought as soon as it ended here on Sunday, and another one took its place amid its grueling attempt to win four games in three days.
“Our guys believe that we can do this,” Mike Fox, the Tar Heels’ coach, said after his team’s 10-1 victory against Florida Gulf Coast, the Tar Heels’ first opponent on what became a marathon of a Sunday.
There was little time to waste then. Moments after UNC completed that victory, it turned its focus to its second game of the day, the one against Davidson, which defeated the Tar Heels, the No. 2 national seed, on Friday night in the opening game of the regional.
That loss left UNC, the top seed of this four-team regional, in the unenviable position of needing to win four games in three days to keep alive its season, and its hope of reaching the College World Series. UNC staved off elimination on Saturday against Michigan, and then again against Florida Gulf Coast.
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Now UNC must beat the Wildcats twice – once on Sunday night and then again on Monday – to advance to an NCAA tournament Super Regional. The Tar Heels would take the kind of performance they delivered in the early game on Sunday.
Aggressive from the start, UNC (49-13) built a 3-0 lead after two innings and the result never seemed in doubt – not with the way the Tar Heels were hitting, and not with how Tyler Baum, the freshman right-hander, was pitching. Baum said he “tried to treat it as any other game,” but he knew.
He knew that, in defeat, UNC’s season would end here. He did his best to extend it. Baum, making his 15th start of the season, allowed three hits and struck out four and after he left, Florida Gulf Coast fared no better against any of UNC’s three relievers.
The Eagles (43-20) mustered but four hits, while offensively the Tar Heels put the game out of reach, if it wasn’t already, with a four-run eighth inning. Three UNC players – Kyle Datres, Brandon Riley and Tyler Lynn – drove in two runs apiece.
Five UNC players – Datres, Riley, Brian Miller, Ashton McGee and Cody Roberts – finished with at least two hits. Overall, UNC finished with 15 hits, and after Miller began the game with a single he stole second and later scored.
Miller’s early steal personified the Tar Heels’ early aggressiveness. They weren’t afraid on Sunday to stretch a single into a double, or a double into a triple, and when an opportunity to score presented itself, they usually did, while Fox might have worn out his arm from sending runners sprinting home.
After the first game, which lasted nearly three and a half hours, fatigue became a natural concern. Would the Tar Heels have enough left, physically, to play as they hoped in the second game? During the 90 minutes between games Fox said the team would eat and rest.
“Just kind of chill out,” he said. “You’ve got to remember, they’ve got their phones. So they can burn an hour quickly with those things.”
One-liners and jokes were fitting now, two days after that shocking defeat against Davidson, which has won its first two NCAA tournament games in school history this weekend. After that loss against the Wildcats, Fox said on Sunday, his players found themselves “shook a little bit,” and it was easy to understand why.
The Tar Heels also found themselves in the least desirable circumstances any college baseball team can be after one NCAA tournament game. They then needed to win four games in three days. After a victory made easy in the first game on Sunday, one that left no time to celebrate, UNC was halfway there.