New ACC baseball tournament format suits second-seeded Tar Heels

The Tar Heels, the No. 2 seed at 44-11 overall and a school-record 23 ACC wins, will begin play on Wednesday at 3 p.m. against 11th-seeded Boston College. Their final pool play game will be against rival NC State on Friday night at 7 p.m.

Jeffrey A. Camarati—UNC Athletic Communications photo
UNC baseball coach congratulates players Cody Roberts (11) and Josh Hiatt (31) following a regular-season victory against rival Duke

Having already put itself in position to host an NCAA regional and earn one of the tournament’s coveted top eight seeds, the North Carolina baseball team doesn’t have a lot to gain at this week’s ACC tournament.Except, of course, a championship trophy.That’s why coach Mike Fox is such a big fan of the new format being tried at this year’s event, which begins on Tuesday at Louisville Slugger Field.The 12 teams involved have been broken into four pools of three, which each playing two games during the open segment of play. After that, the top team in each group will advance to a single elimination knockout round, meaning that no one will have to play more than four games during the course of the week.Under previous pool and straight double elimination formats, teams would often have to play as many as five or six games to win the title, systems that threatened to wear out pitching staffs for the more important NCAA tournament a week later.”Yeah, it is a different format,” Fox said Monday during a pre-tournament teleconference. “I think I’ve said before, it does two or three things that I think most of our league and coaches wanted, which was to expand the field, not tax your pitching and not have to play five games to win it. Things of that nature. So, you know, it sets up pretty well for us.”The Tar Heels, the No. 2 seed at 44-11 overall and a school-record 23 ACC wins, will begin play on Wednesday at 3 p.m. against 11th-seeded Boston College. They won’t play again until facing rival NC State on Friday night at 7 p.m.The semifinals are scheduled for Saturday with the nationally televised title game on Sunday afternoon.Because of the spacing of the games, Fox plans to keep his pitching rotation on its normal schedule, with weekday starter Tyler Baum drawing the opening game assignment and newly named ACC Pitcher of the Year J.B. Bukauskas fitting into his regular Friday slot for the showdown with the Wolfpack.As if the pitching setup wasn’t enough of an advantage in chasing its 11th conference baseball title and first since 2013, UNC will also benefit from a rule that will automatically send the highest seed in the pool to the semifinals in the event that all three teams end up with 1-1 records.”We’re excited to be where we are at this point in the season,” Fox said.As important as winning an ACC championship is to the Tar Heels, staying healthy and keeping its regular season momentum going into next week’s regional is just as much a priority for Fox and his team.”(We) had a good run through the league, so now here comes the bigger picture, so we’re excited to be going to the tournament,” the veteran coach said. “We played pretty consistently all season. The biggest difference, I think, for us from the past couple years is we’ve been much better defensively. We’ve won more close games than we’ve done in the past.”UNC has also gotten big lifts from freshmen such as bullpen closer Josh Hiatt, one of four first-team All-ACC selections named Monday, along with Saturday Gianluca Dalatri and DH Ashton McGee, the ACC’s Rookie of the Year who led the team with a .339 batting average.For all that the Tar Heels will have going for them this week, the one thing they won’t have is a home field advantage they would have enjoyed had the tournament not been moved away from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park because of the fallout from the now-repealed House Bill 2.Instead, top-seeded Louisville will get the benefit of the supportive crowd. But then, that will only come into play for UNC should both teams advance to Sunday’s championship game.So Fox isn’t going to spend a lot of time worrying about it.”That’s always an advantage playing close to home and not having to travel and kind of keeping your normal routine,” he said. “I would expect Louisville to have great crowd. You know, when they play, certainly, a great program, and I think they get tremendous support. So we’ll see.”