North Carolina had a chance to take the lead late in its game Friday night against Duke, the first of a three-game series. There were runners on first and third with two outs.
But Duke's bullpen is among the best in college baseball, and it showed UNC just why.
After Duke's starting pitcher, Mitch Stallings, got into some trouble in the sixth inning, its relief pitchers, Ethan DeCaster (0.70 ERA) and Jack Labosky (0.00 ERA), came in and threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings.
Meanwhile, Duke junior Zack Kone knocked in two runs off a single in the seventh inning and Duke eventually won 7-3.
"When Carolina came back in the sixth, we had opportunities to buckle," Duke coach Chris Pollard said. "We had opportunities to kind of cave in and we didn't do it. We just showed grit, toughness and really stayed in the moment."
In a series where every game mattered for both teams, Duke and UNC played as if their seasons depended on it.
In a way, it does. If Duke (37-11, 16-8 ACC) had swept UNC, it would take a half a game lead in ACC Coastal Division with only three games remaining. If UNC (33-15, 18-7 ACC) had swept Duke, it would clinch the ACC Coastal Division.
But only Duke has a chance to sweep.
With Friday night's loss, UNC's lead over Duke in the ACC Coastal Division has shrunk to 1.5 games. Two wins on Saturday and Sunday however, would still give UNC the Coastal Division title.
Duke started the game on top.
Junior outfielder Griffin Conine hit a solo home run over the right field wall to put the Blue Devils up 1-0 in the bottom of the second inning. The Blue Devils added two more runs in the bottom of the fifth inning. And Stallings had pitched five scoreless innings. But in the top of the sixth inning the Tar Heels finally woke up.
UNC got a walk, four singles, and the help from an error to score three runs and tie the game in the top of the sixth. The Tar Heels had a chance to add onto the lead in the top of the seventh, but left two runners on base.
"The whole game kind of flipped there in the seventh inning," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "We had first and second with nobody out, the middle of our lineup and we can't get it done. I thought we really had the momentum on our side."
Duke would answer, however, with two runs in the bottom seventh inning.
Duke sophomore outfielder Kennie Taylor hit a two-run triple in the eight inning to give Duke a four-run lead.
The Blue Devils' bullpen took care of the rest.
"A less experienced team might fold tonight, but these guys are experienced and battled-tested," Pollard said. "They don't back down from much."