It has come down to this for the North Carolina – a “do or die” game, coach Mike Fox said, in the ACC baseball tournament that just might decide whether the Tar Heels’ season lives on or whether it ends short of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
Last week Fox said he couldn’t believe that he was talking about UNC merely making the ACC tournament, because that has been a given so often during his 16-year tenure. So, too, have appearances in the NCAA tournament, but UNC could be left out of it with a loss against Virginia Tech on Tuesday in an ACC tournament play-in game at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Fox on Monday spoke of the need for the Tar Heels to “recover from a tough weekend” and he joked, at least, that UNC has some experience playing here, in an ACC tournament play-in game. The Tar Heels did that a season ago and defeated N.C. State to advance to pool play.
It was, Fox said, “probably not a good thing” that UNC, the tournament’s No. 8 seed, is back in the same spot. In fact, the Tar Heels are in a worse spot than they were a season ago. Even with a defeat in the play-in game last year, UNC likely would have still made the NCAA tournament.
With a defeat on Tuesday, though, Fox has said that he doesn’t see how the Tar Heels’ season continues.
“I don’t think you can finish 13-16 in your conference and lose the play-in game and go to the NCAA tournament,” he said on Saturday after Virginia completed a three-game sweep at UNC. “I mean, that’s just me, just speaking – not looking at all the numbers and all the teams.
“I think you’ve got to earn your way in, and I think we’ve got to do that (this) week.”
About a week and a half ago, it seemed unlikely – if not completely implausible – that UNC would face such a dire circumstance entering the ACC tournament. But that was before the Tar Heels endured a three-game sweep at Notre Dame, and before they lost three more in a row against Virginia.
It was the first time since 2001 that UNC was swept in consecutive ACC series, and by Saturday, after the sixth of those consecutive losses, Fox didn’t know what to say to his players. He had been frustrated by a performance he described as “embarrassing.”
At that point it wasn’t yet clear whether UNC on Tuesday would play Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech. Fox wasn’t sure it mattered.
“I don’t think it’s about who we play,” he said. “I think we’re playing against ourselves right now.”
In a move that reflects the Tar Heels’ urgency, Fox, whose team split two games against Virginia Tech in the regular season, decided to start Zac Gallen on Tuesday. Gallen, a sophomore right-hander who will be throwing on four days’ rest, is UNC’s No. 1 starter.
Gallen, as Fox said on Monday, “got knocked around pretty good” by the Hokies during UNC’s 8-3 loss in early April. Yet Gallen gives UNC its best hope of surviving an elimination game that could well decide whether the season continues on or ends.
Fox has been critical of the ACC tournament’s play-in game format because of the exact scenario that his team now faces – that a team’s NCAA tournament hopes could rest on a single elimination game at the end of a long season.
“We’ve got nobody but ourselves to blame for putting ourselves in that situation,” Benton Moss, the senior pitcher, said on Saturday.
Moss and the pitching staff, usually, have been the Tar Heels’ strength. UNC scored just five runs in three games against Virginia, but the pitching wasn’t as good as it has been, either.
Fox said “a combination of a lot of things” have led to UNC’s problems and led to the program’s first losing record in the ACC since 2010. As recently as two years ago UNC entered the postseason among the best teams in the country, and it advanced to the College World Series for the sixth time in Fox’s tenure.
“We had a good run,” Fox said, “but all that’s over with.”
Now the Tar Heels face a new and uncomfortable reality, and they face the pressure of having to win on Tuesday to guarantee they play another day.
Where: Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Pods A: No. 1 Louisville, No. 4 Florida State, No. 5 Clemson, No. 8 North Carolina/No. 9 Virginia Tech winner.
Pod B: No. 2 Miami, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 6 N.C. State, No. 7 Virginia/No. 10 Ga. Tech winner.
7 Virginia vs. 10 Georgia Tech, 11 a.m. (RSN)
8 North Carolina vs. 9 Virginia Tech, 3 p.m. (RSN)
(Pool play begins)
4 Florida State vs. 5 Clemson, 11 a.m. (RSN)
2 Miami vs. 7 Virginia/ 10 Georgia Tech, 3 p.m. (RSN)
1 Louisville vs. 8 UNC/9 Va. Tech winner, 7 p.m. (RSN)
3 Notre Dame vs. 6 N.C. State, 11 a.m. (RSN)
5 Clemson vs. 1 Louisville, 3 p.m. (RSN)
4 Florida State vs. 8 UNC/9 Va. Tech winner, 7 p.m. (RSN)
3 Notre Dame vs. 7 UVa./ 10 Ga. Tech, 11 a.m. (RSN)
5 Clemson vs. 8 UNC/9 Va. Tech winner, 3 p.m. (RSN)
2 Miami vs. 6 N.C. State, 7 p.m. (RSN)
1 Louisville vs. 4 Florida State, 11 a.m. (RSN)
2 Miami vs. 3 Notre Dame, 3 p.m. (RSN)
6 N.C. State vs. 7 UVa./10 Ga. Tech, 7 p.m. (RSN)
Pool A champion vs. Pool B champion, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)