Mike Fox could sense Virginia Tech would get a shot to tie the score in the ninth inning. The North Carolina coach had no sense of how his team might react if it did.
“In the back of your mind, you know the tying run is going to come to the plate here in the ninth,” Fox said. “That’s been the story of our last couple weeks.”
The Tar Heels came into the ACC tournament having lost six straight, with the Hokies trying to make it a season-ending seventh on Tuesday in the Pool A play-in game. Virginia Tech did get the tying run to the plate, with one out, but North Carolina reliever Trevor Kelley completed a solid, rain-interrupted appearance with a strikeout and a groundout to complete a 5-3 win.
After a dismal season by North Carolina’s very high standards – only two years removed from a run of six College World Series appearances in eight years – the Tar Heels have a second chance.
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“We’re struggling,” Kelley said, “but it’s a new season for us now.”
It’s very odd to see North Carolina fighting for its ACC tournament life. It’s even stranger to see it in a play-in game two years in a row.
Had the Tar Heels lost, they almost certainly would have missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. Instead, North Carolina is still alive, not only for the NCAA tournament but this weekend at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
It won’t be easy, having used ace Zac Gallen just to survive Tuesday’s play-in game. And the Tar Heels open pool play against Louisville, which this season is the kind of juggernaut the Tar Heels used to be in the ACC.
Not this season. North Carolina has struggled in a very uncharacteristic way.
After 2013’s epic duels with N.C. State – in the regular season, in the ACC tournament and in Omaha – North Carolina, like the Wolfpack, regressed in 2014, only to regress even further in 2015.
You could always count on the Tar Heels in baseball season, until you couldn’t anymore. These are the questions: Is this a blip? Or is this a trend?
It certainly seems more likely to be the former, given the varied combination of circumstances that led the Tar Heels to this point. The most obvious is that this team just doesn’t have as much raw talent as its predecessors.
The Tar Heels had, for a long period of time, reasonably good luck with the draft, deftly navigating the recruiting scene to avoid too many pro defections. In 2013, they lost lefty starter Rob Kaminsky to the St. Louis Cardinals, their only loss but a big one. A year later, their top-ranked recruiting class was ransacked when six players went in the top 64 picks – and all six turned pro.
No program, not even North Carolina, can weather that.
Only two North Carolina players were named all-ACC, both pitchers, Gallen and Benton Moss. It was the second time since 1995 the Tar Heels didn’t have an all-ACC position player. The last time that happened, in 2010, they made the NCAA tournament but exited quickly, ending a four-year College World Series run. They made it back to Omaha during two of the next three years.
Thanks to Tuesday’s win, they should make the NCAA tournament now, although they won’t be feared like they once were. The Tar Heels may be again someday, maybe as soon as next year.
They have too much tradition, their incoming recruiting class is ranked in the top 10 nationally (still pending the draft, naturally), their facilities are elite and while Fox leaves himself open to criticism with his handling of pitchers sometimes, that’s really nitpicking – his record speaks for itself.
This hasn’t been a typical season for the Tar Heels in any respect, but Tuesday’s win at least keeps it from being a complete anomaly.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947