North Carolina coach Mike Fox tries to recruit tough players. Once they get to Chapel Hill, to play in a game in which failure is expected, he talks constantly about attributes such as perseverance and competition.
Still, he admits that nothing could totally prepare his team for what it experienced Monday night and into Tuesday morning.
With their season on the line, the Tar Heels overcame a grand slam in the ninth inning and a three-run homer in the 12th inning, eventually coming away with a 12-11 win over Florida Atlantic in the decisive game of the Chapel Hill Regional.
Afterwards, Fox echoed the sentiments of those who watched the game at Boshamer Stadium and beyond.
“I’m going to remember this game for the rest of my life,” Fox said. “This game would have been special at any time but to do it when it’s June 3rd — and June 4th — and with what’s on the line …”
In fact, the Tar Heels (55-9) had already been a part of two special victories just last week as part of their ACC Tournament title run, though neither had the stakes of an NCAA elimination game. On back-to-back days, UNC beat Clemson in 14 innings after scoring five runs in the ninth, and then went 18 innings to beat N.C. State in the longest game in program history.
“I was actually thinking about that on first base when one of (FAU’s) kids got on and he seemed tired,” said Cody Stubbs, who was MVP of both the ACC Tournament and the Chapel Hill Regional. “Those two extra inning games we played, I think they helped us a lot to keep persevering and keep pushing through because we know we can win this game no matter what.”
That theory was tested on Monday, when FAU scored six times in the ninth inning to take an 8-6 lead on a grand slam by Tyler Rocklein.
The homer was reminiscent of last year’s regional, when St. John’s hit a three-run walkoff homer to stun UNC at Boshamer, and then eliminated the Tar Heels the next day.
“It was kind of, not again. This is not going to happen again,” Stubbs said. “We’re not going to have what happened last year.”
This time, as the designated home team, UNC had a chance to respond in the ninth. Facing Hugh Adams, who set conference and school records for career saves, Stubbs led off with a double, Michael Russell followed with a single, and both runners scored on a one-out single by Mike Zolk.
Zolk also had an RBI single to tie the game in the 12th and almost won it, but Stubbs — the potential winning run — was thrown out at the plate.
That sent the game to the 13th. UNC loaded the bases with one out, and after stranding 31 runners in two games against FAU, Stubbs finally ended the five-hour contest with a liner down the left-field line.
“I was mad at myself for chasing a couple of bad pitches (earlier) but there was no way I wasn’t going to put the ball in play right there,” Stubbs said. “I told myself no matter what, you’re putting the ball in play.”
UNC will now host South Carolina in a best-of-three Super Regional — college baseball’s Sweet 16 round — for a berth in the June 15-26 College World Series in Omaha, Neb. Super Regional game times against the Gamecocks at Boshamer Stadium are 1 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday and, if needed, 1 p.m. Sunday. The opener will be televised on ESPN2 and games two and three on ESPN.
The Gamecocks are led by former Tar Heel player and assistant coach Chad Holbrook.
While no one questions the Tar Heels’ resolve, there are significant questions their starting pitching. All four regular starters were used on Monday night, and none of them were effective.
Monday starter Chris Munnelly was pulled after giving up two runs in three innings. Friday starter Benton Moss gave up the grand slam three days after throwing 90 pitches, while Sunday starter Hobbs Johnson walked the only batter he faced one day after throwing 89 pitches.
Most surprisingly, after throwing 124 pitches on Saturday, ACC pitcher of the year Kent Emanuel threw 51 on Monday and was charged with five earned runs for the second straight appearance.
Afterward, Fox defended his decision to use his starters as closers, which drew criticism from some national baseball analysts — both because of health concerns from the short rest and because the Tar Heel bullpen had been so effective throughout the postseason.
“We feel like we owe it to our team to put the best guys out there to try and win the most important game of our season and try to advance,” Fox said. “They’re competitors. They want to go out. I’ll stand by our reputation. I don’t think we put any of them at risk.”
STARTING CATCHER MATT ROBERTS OUT
Junior catcher Matt Roberts will miss the rest of the season with a broken thumb, a team official confirmed Tuesday. The Graham native was hit by a foul tip in the top of the third inning Monday night.
Roberts started 44 games this season and hit .195. While freshman Korey Dunbar (.167 in 14 starts) is the only other catcher listed on the roster, UNC could move leftfielder Brian Holberton (.308) behind the plate and insert Parks Jordan (.267) in the lineup. That’s how the Tar Heels played the final 10 innings against FAU.
COLIN MORAN A GOLDEN SPIKES FINALIST
Junior third baseman Colin Moran is one of three finalists for the Golden Spikes Award, USA Baseball announced Tuesday.
The ACC player of the year, Moran is batting .351 with 13 home runs and a nation’s-best 85 RBIs. His 69 runs scored are fourth in the country.
The other finalists are San Diego infielder Kris Bryant, who leads the country with 31 home runs, and Vanderbilt right-hander Tyler Beede (14-0, 2.20), who leads the country in wins.
The award will be presented at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on July 19.