Mike Fox remembers the last ACC baseball tournament at Durham Bulls Athletic Park all too well. It may not even be over yet.
In 2011, North Carolina played in one game that didn’t start until after midnight, was suspended at 1:55 a.m. and wasn’t completed until 17 hours later. That was the first of two games for North Carolina that day, the second lasting until 12:30 a.m. There was a 7-hour rain delay during another game and enough other delays to stack up four games on Saturday, starting at 9 a.m.
It was a wet mess of a baseball tournament. Virginia beat Florida State for the title on Sunday in front of a few thousand damp fans, while both North Carolina and N.C. State saw their title hopes washed away in the deluge of delays as pitching staffs were scrambled and bullpens decimated.
“The kids are all adaptable,” Fox, the North Carolina coach, said Tuesday. “As long as they have their phones, they can manage, they can kill time with the best of them. It’s harder on the coaches and the fans sitting around.”
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If those memories weren’t fresh enough, there’s a possibility weather will play havoc with the ACC tournament again. There’s a chance of rain Wednesday, when N.C. State opens tournament play, before the cold front that spawned the devastating storms in the Midwest is expected to move through the area Thursday, when North Carolina plays its first game.
By ACC rules, every game has to go nine innings unless the 10-run mercy rule comes into play, so if the rain comes, they’ll wait it out, as long as it takes. In 2011, it felt like it took forever.
“I think our league’s trying to do the best we can by playing three games a day and spreading them out so you have a four-hour window,” Fox said. “You’re just at the mercy of it. It’s the nature of baseball. It’s an outdoor sport and you just try to deal with it the best you can.”
At this point in the season, NCAA tournament teams like North Carolina and N.C. State have carefully calibrated their pitching rotations to give them the best chance to win not just this weekend in Durham but in next weekend’s NCAA regionals. The ACC tournament format of two round-robin groups of four teams is designed to give coaches as much predictability as possible when setting their rotations.
“Every coach probably handles it differently,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “We have tried to target this tournament and next weekend for the last month or so as we’ve done our pitching.”
That only works if everything goes off as scheduled. If a game is delayed for any length of time after only a couple innings, there’s no chance a starting pitcher is going back in, not with the NCAA tournament to consider. North Carolina’s early morning adventures in 2011 cost starter Patrick Johnson a chance at a no-hitter when he wasn’t able to pick up where he left off at 2 a.m.
Even when the stakes are higher, there’s only so much pressure a coach will put on an arm. Last year, Avent decided not to put ace Carlos Rodon back into a super regional game against Florida after a rain delay. The Wolfpack lost in the 10th, ending its season.
“Everybody thought I should bring Rodon back in Florida, but it was just something I wasn’t willing to do,” Avent said. “He hadn’t thrown that much and I think we sat there for 2 1/2 hours. Most coaches have an hour rule. When a guy sits there with a few pitches for an hour, he’s probably not going to bring him back. It’s just a chance to stiffen up.”
Those considerations can deliver the ACC title to the team with the deepest bullpen. In 2011, that was top-seeded Virginia, which after enduring the 7-hour delay against Miami gave up only four runs over the next 18 innings, leaving the opposition high and dry.