Posted: 2:21 a.m. Tuesday, June 4, 2013
By Brian Barbour
For eight innings this was a routine game. UNC still had trouble plating runners in scoring position but did a better job than Sunday night. The Tar Heels built a 6-2 lead going to the 8th with Trent Thornton pitching another extended outing of shutout baseball.
Then things went to hell in a handbasket which was mostly at the feet of Mike Fox with some help from the umpires. With a four run lead, Thornton would give up back-to-back singles to start the 8th inning. Fox, not wanting to see Thornton give the game away inexplicably brings UNC ace Kent Emanuel into the game. Emanuel pitched on Saturday and threw 124 pitches. For that reason alone, even using him in this game was a highly questionable move that Baseball America's John Manuel heavily criticized on the broadcast. Emanuel got through the 8th with no damage but it was clear he didn't have his best stuff.
Heading to the ninth the reasonable move would have been to pull Emanuel for Chris McCue or anyone else in UNC's bullpen which has been reliable all season. Instead, Emanuel stays in the game and continues to struggle giving up two more runs before loading the bases with two outs. In addition, FAU benefited from a runner going out of the baseline to avoid a Mike Zolk tag and being called safe which led to the dire situation. With a two run lead and the game on the line, Fox decides to bring Benton Moss into the game who pitched on Friday and had his share of troubles then. The result was a grand slam to put the Owls up 8-6 and the Tar Heels on the brink of elimination.
Despite staring over the precipice to the rock strewn offseason below, North Carolina rallied with Cody Stubbs leading off the inning with a double followed by a Michael Russell single. Russell stole second on a Skye Bolt strikeout in a move that could have been a disaster. Instead it worked and UNC had a pair in scoring position for Mike Zolk. The Tar Heel second baseman tied the game with a single sending UNC to its third extra innings game of the postseason.
McCue came on in the tenth and pitched as though he was a little upset Fox didn't give him a chance to close the game out. The Owls went in order through two innings but in the 12th, McCue put a pair on then made a mistake to FAU's Levi Meyer who crushed the ball to left field giving the Owls an 11-8 lead. If matters looked bleak in the 9th they looked even more so in the 12th. Apparently being down with the season on the line is when the Tar Heels do their best work. UNC promptly loaded the bases and worked for two walks to draw within one. Once again it was Zolk at the plate and he was clutch again with a single to tie the game. Stubbs tried to score from second but was thrown out at the plate sending the game to the 13th.
The Owls quickly got a rally working in the top of the 13th putting a runner on third with one out, Mike Fox used UNC's third weekend starter Hobbs Johnson who also pitched on Sunday. Johnson walked the one batter he faced and the Heels turned to freshman Reilly Hovis in his first action of the regional. Hovis faced FAU's Tyler Rocklein whose grand slam put the Owls up 8-6 back in the 9th. The freshman came up big getting Rocklein to strike out swinging to end the threat.
The bottom of the inning got off to a ludicrous start as the first base umpire called Chaz Frank out at first when he clearly beat the throw. Undeterred by this the Heels went on to load the bases bringing Cody Stubbs to the plate. The soon-to-be named MVP of the regional hit a laser right on the left field line to bring in Landon Lassiter and clinch UNC's first trip to the Super Regionals since 2011.
This game had a little bit of everything. Questionable decisions, tough at-bats, big hits from both sides and some controversy in the umpiring. Mike Fox called it "the greatest game" he had ever seen. He is undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief since his handling of the Tar Heel pitching didn't cost UNC the game even if it did extend it longer than it should have.
At this point, UNC is making a habit of winning dramatic extra inning games and playing with all sorts of fire while doing so. Having it happen in the ACC Tournament is one thing, doing it in the NCAA Tournament is asking for trouble. For now the Heels move on and will now face South Carolina. The effort involved in getting this far will raise some interesting questions about the durability of the pitching next weekend. Of course should UNC find the offense, it could make the pitching question less daunting.