For UNC, season-ending defeat against Davidson is ‘just miserable’

North Carolina’s Logan Warmoth (7) embraces teammate Cody Roberts (11) following their 2-1 season ending loss to Davidson in the NCAA regional on Sunday, June 4, 2017 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Logan Warmoth (7) embraces teammate Cody Roberts (11) following their 2-1 season ending loss to Davidson in the NCAA regional on Sunday, June 4, 2017 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

These were the sort of circumstances that had inspired some of North Carolina's best moments during the past four months, a season of renewal and rebirth for a baseball program that had long been one of the nation's strongest, before a three-season slump. The Tar Heels thrived in situations like these.

And they believed they would again on Sunday night, trailing by a run, their season at stake in the bottom of the ninth inning against Davidson. UNC, after all, had long established its dramatic flair, its knack for winning games that appeared lost.

“The story of our team all year,” Brian Miller, the junior center fielder, said. “Guys just fighting, until the end.”

And then the end came, and suddenly there was no more fighting to be done. The Tar Heels entered the NCAA tournament the No. 2 national seed, one of the clear favorites to end the season in Omaha at the College World Series. It ended, instead, with a stunning 2-1 defeat on Sunday night against Davidson.

Before Friday, the Wildcats had never won an NCAA tournament baseball game. Now, as the No. 4 seed in a four-team regional, they've won three consecutive – two of those against the Tar Heels, who set school records for ACC victories (23) and conference series victories, too (10).

If Davidson's 8-4 victory against UNC on Friday night was the early stunner of the NCAA tournament, this, on Sunday, provided an improbable encore, one wrought with more drama and more emotion – tears both of victory and defeat.

All the while, it never really seemed as though the Tar Heels would actually lose. Not with a lineup led by All-ACC players like Miller and Logan Warmoth, the shortstop. Not with Josh Hiatt, the domineering freshman who became one of the best closers in school history, on the pitcher's mound.

Not with Davidson facing the improbable task of keeping the magic going. It had to run out eventually, right? The Wildcats had to come crashing back down to Earth, no? Only a matter of time. Except that time never came for Davidson, which will continue its journey in an NCAA tournament Super Regional.

Davidson entered the bottom of the ninth clinging to that one-run lead. The 5-foot-11 right-hander Durin O'Linger, the bearded wonder who flummoxed the Tar Heels throughout the first game of this regional, was back on the mound in the ninth after appearing in relief one inning earlier.

O'Linger threw nearly 250 pitches about a week ago in the Atlantic 10 tournament. He pitched six more innings in the victory against UNC on Friday. A future pharmacy school student at the University of Florida, O'Linger said after that game that he'd be content to pitch until his arm gave out.

Perhaps he meant it literally, because there he was on Sunday night, retiring the Tar Heels in order in the eighth after relieving Josh Hudson, who allowed only one run in seven innings. Finally, O’Linger appeared mortal in the ninth. UNC put runners on first and second with one out, and then Zack Gahagan singled to right.

The crowd at Boshamer Stadium rose to its feet and roared. Mike Fox, the UNC coach, wildly swung his arm, waving home Brandon Riley, who'd been on second. Riley rounded third and dove toward home plate just as the throw arrived.

At first, Riley slid under, and around, Davidson catcher Jake Sidwell's glove. In the process, though, Riley missed the plate. Sidwell, quickly realizing it, reached to apply the tag, and made it just before Riley could touch the plate. He thought he had, anyway, before Sidwell touched him.

Riley protested. Some of his teammates rushed from the dugout to restrain him.

“You hope he's safe, you feel like he's safe,” Adam Pate, a UNC senior and one of the team's leaders, said afterward. “But there's a lot of other things Davidson did well. It wasn't just that one play.”

All of that, and the Tar Heels still had a chance: first and third, two out, Michael Busch at the plate.

He hit a high-bouncing ground ball to the right side. Davidson first baseman Brian Fortier fielded it and tossed to O'Linger, who approached first base at roughly the same time Busch crossed it. The umpire made the call: out. Game over, while UNC protested, for naught, for the second time in a few minutes.

And so UNC's promising season ended, and in agony. The Tar Heels (49-14), one of the nation's best teams for four months, never saw it coming. They'd come to believe in recent weeks and months that they had the makings of something special.

Returning to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence, such a focus of those long fall workouts and scrimmages, became an afterthought. The Tar Heels dreamed bigger dreams. They envisioned a season ending in the College World Series, not on an early June Sunday night at home.

“You run into a hot team and you think you're going to make it, you think you're going to do it all,” Pate said. “It's tough to come to such a quick end. That's for sure. You don't expect to end like this. You hope to end in Omaha.”

To not advance to a Super Regional, UNC needed a near perfect confluence of events to unfold. It needed J.B. Bukauskas, its All-American pitcher and the ACC Pitcher of the Year, to falter like he hadn't all season, and he did that against Davidson (35-24) on Friday.

It needed its lineup to go cold at inopportune times – and that happened twice against the Wildcats, who held the Tar Heels to five runs in two games while UNC scored a combined 18 runs in elimination-game victories against Michigan, on Saturday, and Florida Gulf Coast, earlier on Sunday.

And it needed, perhaps, some bad luck – close, could-go-either-way calls to go the other way. That happened after back-to-back at-bats on Sunday – the final two at-bats of UNC's season, as it turned out. Fox, the UNC coach, said he didn't have a great view of Riley's slide.

Was he safe? Out? Fox didn't argue the call, at least not afterward.

“You're supposed to avoid contact, so it looks to me that's what Brandon did,” he said. “... He tried to reach back and get it.”

And just as Riley made that effort, Sidwell, the catcher, applied the tag. The Tar Heels could have tied the game on that play. They could have tied the game moments later had Busch been called safe at first instead of out. UNC was left thinking afterward about coulds and woulds and what-ifs.

An entire season building to this point, to the postseason and the dreams that come with it, and then it was over, though not before one last fight. Fox saw that part coming, at least – the resiliency that gave his team a chance in its final at-bat.

“That's kind of what I expected,” he said. “Obviously, it makes it that much harder to swallow, honestly.”

Standing in this stadium six days earlier, addressing the public before the tournament selection show, Fox told the crowd how this had been among his favorite teams in his 19 seasons at UNC. It was high praise, indeed, given he has led six teams to Omaha.

Eventually that became this team's goal, too. And then, suddenly, it was over – the game. The season.

“That's hard,” Fox said. “That's just hard to take. The end of the season, it's just miserable.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter