Luke DeCock

Opening day of ACC tourney merely an appetizer for Triangle madness to come

Tar Heels prepare for postseason

UNC baseball coach Mike Fox discusses the effect of the Tar Heels' postseason disappointment in 2017 and having the No. 1 seed in the 2018 ACC Championship after completing a sweep of Virginia Tech on May 19, 2018.
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UNC baseball coach Mike Fox discusses the effect of the Tar Heels' postseason disappointment in 2017 and having the No. 1 seed in the 2018 ACC Championship after completing a sweep of Virginia Tech on May 19, 2018.

There were as many scouts in the stands as fans when Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh inaugurated the ACC baseball tournament's return to Durham on Tuesday, a very different scene from what the next few days figure to be like.

If the weather holds up – the previous ACC postseason game played on this field, the 2016 title game between Clemson and Florida State, featured almost five hours of rain delays, and Tuesday's opener made it all the way to the bottom of the ninth before the first drops fell – the presence of the three Triangle teams as the top teams in their pods turns one of the weaknesses of the ACC's silly tournament format into a huge strength.

By railroading the No. 1 seeds into the semifinals, the odds are good for butts in seats, venom in dugouts and high local stakes when the weekend rolls around, even after the big crowds expected when North Carolina plays in the late game Wednesday and N.C. State in the late game Friday.

Thanks to House Bill 2, Louisville last May hosted the first year of the new 12-team version of the round-robin pool play only a college baseball coach could love – yes, the same ones who adore sacrifice bunts and mid-count pitching changes. The ruthlessly pragmatic format offers pitching predictability heading into the NCAA tournament at the expense of meaningless games that nevertheless have to be played long into the early hours of the morning while dodging the inevitable thunderstorms.

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Virginia gets ready to take the field for the second game of the 2018 ACC baseball tournament at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The tournament returned to Durham after a one-year hiatus in Louisville because of HB2. Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

The four opening games of this year's tournament are all elimination games pairing the bottom two teams in each pod. The loser's next game is entirely meaningless absent any NCAA tournament consideration – leaving more than a quarter of all the baseball played in the tournament merely for exhibition purposes.

Georgia Tech now has to hang around for three days for no reason after its 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh in a very first-game-Tuesday-at-the-ACC-tournament matchup. Its game Friday against North Carolina is now completely meaningless, the semifinal berth to be decided Wednesday when the Panthers play the Tar Heels.

Then again, when the top seeds are all among the five or six teams you'd want in Durham for atmosphere purposes, it all seems worthwhile, even if none of them played Tuesday. With North Carolina the No. 1 overall seed and N.C. State, Duke and Clemson atop their pools, everything's pointing toward an insane set of semifinals that would pit the Tar Heels against the Blue Devils and the Tigers against the Wolfpack leading into a potential UNC-N.C. State title game.

Who's up for that?

The DBAP has been the scene of some of the Triangle's greatest college-baseball moments in recent years, Tar Heels vs. Wolfpack in front of five-figure crowds in particular, and this weekend looms as a prime opportunity for another.

It was a more intimate gathering for Tuesday's opener, played in intermittent sunshine on a lovely afternoon for baseball that augured optimistically for the week amid ominous forecasts. The only negative attached to playing the ACC tournament at the DBAP – especially in a year when the semifinals are heavily weighted toward rivalry games – is the uncertain weather, and there aren't many places in the ACC footprint where that isn't an issue in late May.

So a light rain fell as Pittsburgh wrapped things up, but it moved along quickly without any delay, and it's hard to think of a better way to get the week started than a 2-hour, 35-minute game – even if the best is clearly yet to come.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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