Tar Heels come out flat in pool play opener at ACC Tourney
Whether it was having a letdown after Tuesday’s intense rivalry win over N.C. State or just facing a superior opponent, No. 7 North Carolina was overmatched in its ACC Tournament pool play opener against No. 2 Florida State.
Billy Strode pitched to just two batters over the minimum in his six innings and FSU broke the game open with a four-run fourth to win 7-1 Wednesday night at NewBridge Bank Park.
The loss makes it unlikely that UNC will be able to repeat last year’s ACC title run. Because of tiebreakers, the Tar Heels would need to win their remaining two pool play games — Friday at 7 p.m. against No. 3 Virginia and Saturday at 3 p.m. against No. 6 Maryland — and have the Seminoles lose their next two games for UNC to qualify for Sunday’s final.
FSU (42-14), which is coming off its eighth straight Atlantic Division title, plays Maryland Friday at 11 a.m. and Virginia Saturday at 7 p.m.
But the Tar Heels (33-24) still have plenty to play for — UNC could use another quality win or two to solidify its NCAA Tournament résumé. The Tar Heels entered the week 44th in the RPI, while Virginia is No. 1, FSU is No. 3 and Maryland is No. 28.
“We’re still fighting for our NCAA lives here,” Fox said. “I’m trying not to think about it. We’ve got to compete better and we’ve got to try win a couple more games here in the tournament. All that’s going to play out based on how we finish here, I think.”
Fox said that No. 2 starter Benton Moss (4-2, 3.59) will pitch against the Cavs and No. 3 starter Zac Gallen (5-4, 4.30) will pitch against Maryland.
UNC already improved its chances with Tuesday’s 4-3 win over No. 10 N.C. State in the play-in round. After using first-team all-ACC reliever Reilly Hovis and second-team all-ACC starter Trent Thornton against the Wolfpack, the Tar Heels turned to midweek starter Taylore Cherry against FSU.
In his first career start, Cherry (2-3) had given up one run in five innings in last year’s championship game win over Virginia Tech. But the sophomore allowed six runs in 5.1 innings against the Seminoles, and he threw eight straight balls to walk two batters during FSU’s big fourth inning.
“It’s very typical of how they beat you,” Fox said. “They pitch well, don’t give you any opportunities, they take advantage of walks, two-out hits… all the things that you would script out for how to win a game, Florida State just does it.”
Justin Gonzalez and John Nogowski hit solo homers to add to the lead for the Seminoles, who had lost a program-record seven straight ACC Tournament games entering Wednesday.
Making his fourth start of the season, and first against an ACC opponent, Strode (2-1) gave up just four singles in six innings — two of which were erased by double plays. He didn’t allow a baserunner until a two-out hit by Landon Lassiter in the fourth inning.
Strode was replaced after 71 pitches, and UNC scored against reliever Gage Smith in the seventh when Lassiter reached on an error, moved to second on a single by Skye Bolt and scored on a single by Alex Raburn to make it 6-1.
But with runners on the corners and one out, Tyler Ramirez hit into an inning-ending double play — UNC’s third in three innings — to end the rally.
“Give up the big inning, it’s hard to recover from that for a team that just pounds the strike zone and makes plays behind their pitchers,” Fox said. “The double plays obviously were huge for them and just didn’t allow us create any opportunity offensively.”
NOTE — Tar Heels’ leading hitter Michael Russell left the game after three innings with a sore back. Fox said the move was precautionary, but that he needed to talk to the trainers before determining if Russell would play on Friday. … Jameis Winston became the first Heisman Trophy winner to pitch in the ACC Tournament. He pitched the ninth inning, recording one walk and one strikeout. … FSU is 9-1 all-time against UNC in the ACC Tournament.
Follow UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.