Long after the win had been secured, Michael Busch could affect the never-in-doubt practiced nonchalance of the victor. He could try, anyway. His coach saw through it, or at least was willing to acknowledge his perspective wasn't quite as sanguine.
“It wasn't probably as nerve-wracking as most people thought it was,” Busch, the North Carolina first baseman, said.
To Busch's left, the expression on coach Mike Fox's face left little doubt that he didn't share that feeling. Fox, no doubt, has seen crazier things happen. He's also been in this position many times before, a win away from another trip to the College World Series after Friday's 7-4 super-regional win over Stetson.
The Tar Heels had to escape a wild ninth inning to get to that precipice, throwing their closer until he ran out of juice one out from the end, twice pushing Stetson to its final strike only to give the Hatters new life.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
A comfortable 7-4 lead became a tenuous 7-4 lead in an instant, bases loaded with the potential go-ahead run at the plate, closer Josh Hiatt watching from the dugout and a game the Tar Heels thought was theirs – especially after chasing Stetson ace Logan Gilbert in the fifth inning – very much anyone's for the taking.
Hiatt had come into the game in the seventh, not unusual for him, with the Tar Heels in a jam – two on, nobody out, one run already in and the Hatters down two. He let a runner score from third on a wild pitch, but got through the rest of the inning, the entire eighth and the first two hitters of the ninth otherwise unscathed.
But an eight-pitch walk was followed by a hit batter and a single, and after 50 pitches, Hiatt clearly didn't have anything left. Fox went to hard-throwing sophomore starter Austin Bergner, a potential Game 3 starter, to get the final outs. A two-strike walk loaded the bases before Brooks Wilson hit a rocket into left – and right to Ashton McGee, just short of the warning track.
“The game's never over,” Fox said. “Stetson, they have a great team and they're not going to quit. The last three outs, the last out, they're hard to get. We were hoping Josh would be able to finish after he got two quick outs, but you have to give them credit. They got some walks and the two-out base-hit there. Doing what they wanted to do.”
Nevertheless, the Tar Heels lurched closer to their first trip to Omaha since 2013, despite a costly error and a bizarre wardrobe malfunction – Ike Freeman took too long getting back to left field after changing his pants, damaged in the dirt after an inning-ending rundown between third and home – that gave Stetson a one-ball headstart on the walk that started the seventh, bringing Hiatt into the game in the first place.
The Tar Heels responded in the bottom of the seventh with a Busch home run that looked too high to get out, until it carried over the wall in right. That, and a bases-loaded walk later in the inning, gave them the cushion they needed to survive the ninth.
Having beaten Stetson's best pitcher and survived a ninth inning that saw the Hatters a pitch away from taking control, the Tar Heels will send their ace, Luca Dalatri, to the mound Saturday afternoon with a chance to get back to the College World Series.
Given the stakes, there may be some nerves Saturday, but if there weren't any in the ninth inning Friday, maybe there won't be any at all.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock