Tar Heels write final chapter on wild run

May. 26, 2013 @ 11:23 PM

North Carolina’s first ACC Baseball Tournament championship since 2007 certainly is one for the books.

Most glaringly, there are the 32 innings the Tar Heels played in victories over Clemson on Friday night (and into Saturday morning) and N.C. State on Saturday (Sunday morning). The game against the Wolfpack lasted more than six hours and a tournament-record 18 innings, resulting in a 2-1 UNC win at 1:51 a.m. Sunday.

“They are very deserving to be champions after what they did the last 24 hours,” Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes said after UNC’s 4-1 victory Sunday afternoon in the title game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The Tar Heels’ 19th consecutive win over the Hokies was a comparatively mundane way to complete the regular-season/tournament sweep of ACC titles.

Unless you consider that UNC’s starting pitcher, freshman Taylore Cherry, came into the game having pitched 3.1 innings in five appearances with an earned-run average of 13.50.

Most teams struggle to piece together pitching late into a four-game tournament run, never mind the volume of innings UNC played. The Tar Heels, ranked No. 1 most of the season, are no different.

UNC coach Mike Fox said the decision to give the ball to Cherry was simple.

“He was the only one we had left,” Fox said before adding with a grin, “That was supposed to be funny.”

Cherry walked the first batter he faced, then sat down the next three including one memorable play — a line drive off the bat of Tyler Horan that hit the 6-8, 270-pound right-hander in the chest before he recovered to field it for the final out of the inning.

“That probably helped to bring reality back into it,” Cherry said of the excitement of starting the decisive game. “At the beginning, I was a little nervous. But after I got in there, I settled down a little bit and just tried to throw strikes and get some ground balls.”

Fox was asked if the Tar Heels were worried about the line drive, given the limited number of pitchers available.

“We were laughing, honestly, because we thought they were going to bunt because he’s not the most agile,” Fox said of Cherry. “I think, rather than hurt him, it sort of jolts you into that, ‘OK, I’m in control of this game.’

“Then he made a play (in the second inning), got off the mound, fielded a bunt, threw it to first. So it was like, ‘OK, here we go.’”

As much as anything, it symbolized the Tar Heels’ toughness throughout the tournament and the season in general. Trevor Kelley came on in relief in the sixth inning, and after loading the bases, a double play allowed the only Virginia Tech run to score.

After that, Kelley and the Tar Heels recorded the final 10 outs in order.

“The tournament is extremely difficult to win with all the great teams we have in our league,” Fox said. “I think all my colleagues in the ACC would agree with that. It’s a great accomplishment to navigate your way through this tournament and come out on top. ...

“We haven’t won it in the past because there’s been other really good teams that won it.”

UNC (52-8) has been a top-10 team nationally for much of the period since winning the 2007 ACC championship, but anything can happen in a tournament competition.

Such as back-to-back marathon wins and playing 49 innings in four days.

“I really think our players, after last night, everybody thought it was our championship to win,” Fox said. “I didn’t say that or hear anybody say it, but you could sort of sense that this morning that, hopefully, we didn’t go through all that for nothing. ...

“It doesn’t really matter how you navigate through to get it, just the fact that you won it. ... They will be able to always say (that) they were 2013 ACC champions and they played an 18-inning game and they played in front of the biggest crowd (for a college game in North Carolina). There are a lot of great memories from this tournament that they’ll be able to take with them.”

The Tar Heels will focus on the NCAA Tournament next, hosting regional competition this coming weekend at Boshamer Stadium.

But first, they’ll take a day off to rest.

“We’ll get back on the field Tuesday,” Fox said before adding with a smile, “but it’ll be really light.”

You may contact Jimmy DuPree at jdupree@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6674.