UNC aces N.C. State in ACC Tournament elimination game
It was everything that people have come to expect from a baseball game between North Carolina and N.C. State — high stakes and plenty of drama, including a controversial play that the crowd of 5,822 at NewBridge Bank Park won’t soon forget.
The Tar Heels and Wolfpack battled for almost four hours before UNC came away with a 4-3 win in the play-in round of the ACC Tournament, likely sealing an NCAA Tournament bid for UNC — and almost certainly ending N.C. State’s season.
The rivals had been a part of classic ACC Tournament games in each of the past two seasons, with UNC winning in 12 innings here in 2012 and in 18 innings at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 2013.
Though Tuesday’s meeting lacked the atmosphere or the length of those two Saturday night marathons, the game still had plenty of intensity despite an 11 a.m. start.
After disappointing regular seasons, the rivals were forced into a play-in game Tuesday to determine who would advance to ACC Tournament pool play and polish their NCAA résumé.
The seventh-seeded Tar Heels (33-23) pulled out all the stops — closer Reilly Hovis made his first start of the season, while ace Trent Thornton was called on to get the final six outs. The 10th-seeded Wolfpack (32-23) chose not to pitch top draft prospect Carlos Rodon after he threw 109 pitches on Friday — instead, Rodon was the designated hitter and junior transfer Eric Peterson made his first start for N.C. State.
“We weren’t going to pitch him on three days rest with all he’s done for this University,” Wolfpack coach Elliot Avent said.
Skye Bolt hit his third homer of the season off Peterson (4-4) in the second, and Michael Russell’s triple keyed a three-run third as UNC took a 4-1 lead.
But the Wolfpack struck back for two runs in the fourth before freshman Zach Rice (2-2) came in with the bases loaded and one out and struck out the next two batters to keep the Tar Heels in front.
That was the first of many escapes by UNC’s bullpen as the Wolfpack failed to get the tying run home.
Trevor Kelley came in with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth and got a foul pop and a strikeout before a disputed call that went against N.C. State.
Leadoff hitter Trea Turner attempted to steal home after the strikeout when catcher Korey Dunbar threw the ball back to the mound, but Turner was called out by Mark Chapman despite appearing to beat Kelley’s throw back to the plate.
“He’s a better person than he is an umpire, and he’s a good umpire,” Avent said. “Is he going to hate this film? Probably.”
The Wolfpack had another huge opportunity to extend its stay when Bubby Reilly led off the eighth with a walk and shortstop Michael Russell committed fielding and throwing errors on Rodon’s grounder to put runners on second and third with no outs.
In stepped Thornton, UNC’s closer last season who was converted to the No. 1 starter this year. Thornton struck out the first two batters and got a lineout from Logan Ratledge, his former teammate at Ardrey Kell High School, to get out of the jam.
“I told Coach after the game I missed that adrenaline,” Thornton said. “I was really prepared for that time of the game.”
Thornton then ensured that the game would have a decidedly anticlimactic finish by needing just five pitches to retire the heart of the N.C. State lineup in the ninth.
“It always feels good to beat State,” Russell said. “I don’t know what it is about it, I guess it is that rivalry, a lot of us know each other and it’s just a real fiery atmosphere whenever we play each other.”
UNC now enters pool play and will play No. 2 seed Florida State at 7 tonight, No. 3 Virginia Friday at 7 p.m. and No. 6 Maryland Saturday at 3 p.m. The winner of the pool will play in the championship game Sunday at 1 p.m.
Fox said that Taylore Cherry (2-2, 3.13) would start Wednesday and Zac Gallon (5-4, 4.30) would likely get the nod Friday.
Meanwhile, N.C. State must wait until Monday’s NCAA Tournament selection show to see if its season will continue.
“We hope the season is not over but if it is, I couldn’t be prouder of what our guys did,” Avent said.
Follow UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.