North Carolina's baseball team lost on Thursday night in brutal fashion against Virginia. Two outs away from victory, the Tar Heels lost their lead in the ninth inning, and then they ultimately lost 2-1 in 10 innings, and lost after leaving the bases loaded.
Most of all, UNC lost a chance to secure its place in the ACC Tournament, which begins next week at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Tar Heels are still likely to be in the tournament.
A victory on Friday or Saturday against Virginia would get them there, as would one Wake Forest loss against Duke during the next two days. Still, that UNC is even in this position – with its postseason fate undecided on the final weekend of the regular season – says something about a frustrating season.
“Boy, I can't even believe we're talking about that as our goal,” coach Mike Fox said on Thursday of needing a victory to clinch a spot in the conference tournament. “But it is right now.”
There's no arguing Fox has built one of the best, most consistent programs in the country during his tenure. The Tar Heels have been regular contenders in the ACC – one of the strongest baseball conferences in the country – and they've made regular trips to the College World Series.
Which is why this season – and last season – have stood out. Before last season, UNC had hosted an NCAA tournament regional seven times since 2006. The Tar Heels didn't host one last season for the first time since 2010, and barring something unforeseen – like, say, winning out between now and the start of the NCAA tournament – it's unlikely that UNC will host a regional this year.
If it happens that way – if UNC doesn't host a regional – it'd be the first time in 10 years that the Tar Heels have gone back to back seasons without hosting one. You could sense the disappointment in Fox's voice on Thursday night after another difficult loss, one that drops UNC to 13-14 in the ACC.
“We're not as good as we need to be,” he said.
As was the case last season, UNC has had difficulty, at times, generating runs. There are far better metrics to measure a team's offensive strength than batting average but, that said, UNC's batting average of .267 is on pace to be the team's lowest since 1989. The Tar Heels left the bases loaded in defeat on Thursday and, before that, they couldn't finish a game they were so close to winning.
That's also been an issue of late. So now UNC has lost four consecutive conference games, including the sweep at Notre Dame last weekend. The Tar Heels still seem to be in good shape to make the NCAA tournament but another loss against Virginia on Friday would put a lot of pressure on UNC to win on Saturday.
As crazy as it sounds, it's possible for UNC to play its way not only out of the ACC tournament, but also out of the NCAA tournament. If UNC doesn't rebound with a victory one of the next two days, it would end conference play on a six-game losing streak. Is that all that likely? No. Shouldn't be, at least.
But given the success of Fox's program how likely would it have seemed not too long ago for UNC to be in the position it finds itself in now? Two years ago the Tar Heels entered the postseason as arguably the nation's best team, and they ended the season in Omaha. Now they're in need of a win – or another team's loss – on the last weekend of the regular season to secure a spot in the ACC tournament.
“It's not a good feeling but it's our own fault,” Fox said. “And our league's been good and teams have been bunched there so you could sort of look and see that it was probably heading for the last weekend and here we are.”