Settle in. This could take a while.
The first of possibly three meetings between North Carolina and N.C. State at the College World Series is set for 3 p.m. Sunday, but given the history of these teams both against each other and everybody else, there’s no guarantee it doesn’t spill over into Monday.
Long games, late nights, clutch hits and the pitching heroics of Carlos Rodon and Trent Thornton – this baseball postseason has had everything.
When North Carolina clinched its spot in Omaha, Neb., in a game played two days late because of rainouts, on a Tuesday afternoon, North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran couldn’t help but notice how the routine circumstances were a bit unusual for the Tar Heels.
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“Everyone was joking about starting the game at 12 (noon), because we play better after midnight,” Moran said.
This opening matchup Sunday might have a hard time living up to expectations only because the bar has been set so high. It isn’t even about the hype, which is out of control already. The teams share not only a conference and an area code but a common reliance on late-inning heroics and visits to the other side of midnight.
The matchup of the rivals has provoked talk of what it might mean for the growth of college baseball in the area, but it’s hard to imagine things getting much more exciting than the past month, which has delivered no shortage of drama along the way to Omaha.
It started with the 18-inning marathon that stretched well past midnight at the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels winning that one only a day after going 14 innings with Clemson in another early-morning conclusion. In any other season, maybe any other decade, that 2-1 North Carolina win against the Wolfpack would stand out as the most memorable by far. This May and June, it has become one of many.
North Carolina needed 13 innings and multiple comebacks just to get out of its regional against Florida Atlantic, coming back from two runs down in the bottom of the ninth and three runs down in the bottom of the 12th to win the deciding game.
It took a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth to get past South Carolina in the first game of their Super Regional, and after a blowout win by the Gamecocks in Game 2, the Tar Heels were facing elimination yet again. Another comeback, after North Carolina had squandered an early lead and fallen behind, was necessary to join the Wolfpack in Omaha.
While the Wolfpack emerged unbeaten and relatively unscathed from its regional, N.C. State piled on the late-inning dramatics against Rice in the Super Regional.
First, after falling behind 3-2 despite having ace Rodon on the mound, the Wolfpack scored twice in the bottom of the ninth for the 4-3 win, Jake Fincher coming through with the winning single.
A night later, the Wolfpack had to score three runs in the top of the ninth to force extra innings – eight of them. N.C. State finally broke through in the top of the 17th while senior Ethan Ogburn held the Owls at bay for five innings. That one ended just this side of midnight.
Back in Houston, Rice still must be wondering exactly what happened.
So the folks in Omaha would be wise to settle in for a long one, or two, or three. These teams know how to win and are willing to play for as long as it takes – 13 innings, 14 innings, 17 innings, 18 innings – to settle it.
And no matter how many more times they play, both teams have a legitimate shot to deliver the most exciting moment of all: A national championship. If nothing else, both have proven they’re willing to go to any lengths to do it.