When Logan Warmoth swung and connected with a fastball that he drove high and deep toward left field on Saturday, his North Carolina teammates crouched down in the home dugout, along the third base side, and watched the ball’s flight until it sailed over the fence.
“And (as) soon as that ball went over, everybody just stormed out of there,” J.B. Bukauskas, the sophomore pitcher, said afterward. “Just awesome.”
Bukauskas and his teammates ran from the dugout and waited near home plate to celebrate with Warmoth, whose solo home run in the bottom of the 10th inning gave the Tar Heels a dramatic, and important, 3-2 victory against Louisville.
Just an inning earlier, in the top of the ninth, UNC had surrendered a 2-1 lead that forced the game into extra innings. The Tar Heels’ failure to hold that lead spoiled a superb outing from Bukauskas, who pitched in the eighth and ninth innings while blood blister bubbled on his pitching hand.
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“I feel pretty good,” he said afterward, spots of blood dried onto his uniform. “Other than my finger.”
This victory, for UNC (30-16, 10-13), came with a certain kind of healing power. Or at least that’s the Tar Heels’ hope.
Entering Saturday they’d lost five consecutive ACC games. They’d found themselves, all of a sudden, with their postseason status uncertain, needing victories even to secure a place in the ACC tournament at the end of the month.
The top 10 teams in the conference standings qualify for the tournament. After a 6-0 defeat against Louisville (37-10, 15-8) on Friday night, the Tar Heels entered Saturday with the 12th-best winning percentage in the conference in ACC games.
A defeat on Saturday would have placed UNC in an even more precarious position. Now the Tar Heels have hope that their dramatic victory against Louisville can be something of an elixir after the humbling defeat on Friday night followed a difficult April.
“It’s a momentum shifter, for sure,” said Warmoth, the sophomore shortstop.
Earlier on Saturday, Warmoth gave UNC its 2-1 lead with a long sacrifice fly to deep left field. Then came the game-winning home run in the 10th.
It was his second home run of the season, and it created a moment that had been a long time coming. The Tar Heels hadn’t won a game in such fashion, with a home run in their final at-bat, since 2010.
Had UNC needed this one particularly badly? Mike Fox, the UNC coach, pondered the question for about half of a second on Saturday afternoon.
“That might be the understatement of the college baseball season,” he said. “I don’t know. Yeah, we needed that one. That’s all you can say. We definitely needed that one.”
Now he and his team are faced with another question: What can a victory like this, under these kinds of circumstances, do for the Tar Heels?
Their game Sunday against Louisville, the finale of a three-game series, will be as important as the one on Saturday. Then after hosting Notre Dame next weekend, UNC finishes the regular season with a high-stakes series at N.C. State.
UNC’s remaining seven conference games will determine whether it qualifies for the ACC tournament, which is usually considered a given for this program, and it will go a long ways toward determining whether the Tar Heels play in the NCAA tournament after missing it a season ago.
UNC approached the series this weekend against Louisville, a consensus top-10 team, searching for a spark. The Tar Heels were still looking for one late on Saturday afternoon, after it had given up the lead with two outs in the top of the ninth.
Not long after that happened, though, the Tar Heels were jumping about near home plate at Boshamer Stadium, waiting for Warmoth to finish rounding the bases. He did and the celebration continued.
“Sometimes those close games can get teams fired up,” Bukauskas said. “Like, you guys should see our locker room right now. So hopefully that can carry on into (Sunday) and later on this season.”