DURHAM — Friday’s matchup between North Carolina and Georgia Tech had absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the ACC baseball tournament. But as Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said after his team was mathematically eliminated from the event by Pittsburgh two nights earlier, there’s no such thing as a meaningless game.
He made it a point to remind his players of that before sending them onto the field against the Yellow Jackets at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Not that that the reminder was really needed.
The top seeded Tar Heels scored twice in the opening inning, and unlike the game that cost them a shot at the tournament championship, kept the hammer down this time on the way to a 9-0 victory that got them back in a positive frame of mind heading into next week’s NCAA tournament.
Just as Fox expected they would.
“I’m not surprised,” he said afterward. “I challenged them a little bit, but they should probably be upset with me that I actually did that because I think that’s one of our team’s biggest attributes is they really enjoy competing. And they were upset that we weren’t playing for more today.
“I like that about this team more than anything else. That’s probably what I’m most proud of today besides the way we played, is how we approached the game and how we came over here ready.”
It took only two batters for UNC (38-18) to realize that things might be different against Georgia Tech than they were in Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh.
That night, every hard hit ball they sent into the outfield seemed to be run down by a Panthers fielder for an out. This time, the first two batters in the order — Kyle Datres and Michael Busch — managed to find gaps for doubles that helped stake the Tar Heels to a quick 2-0 lead.
Two innings later, after Busch led off with another double, they put the game away by hitting two balls in a place where no one but the fans watching from the deck at Tobacco Road could possibly catch.
Home runs by Brandon Martorano and Zack Gahagan keyed a five-run outburst that extended the UNC lead to 7-0.
From that point on, the focus turned to the mound and the performance of Tar Heels ace Gianluca Dalatri.
Making only his second start since returning from a stress reaction to his pitching elbow that cost him most of the season, the sophomore right-hander looked dominant at times in throwing five shutout innings.
Dalatri struck out eight and allowed only two hits while walking one in a 73-pitch performance that was as encouraging as the circumstances surrounding the game were disappointing.
“I think it’s huge for our team,” Fox said. “He has a history of how he can pitch last year. I think it’s a huge morale boost to really everybody, but I think his teammates more than anything else because we all feel good when Gianluca is on the mound because he’s pretty good.”
Nobody felt as good about Dalatri’s performance as the young pitcher himself.
Although he appeared to run out of gas while gritting through his final inning, he said he’s getting close to his old self again and is confident in his ability to regain his ace status as UNC moved ahead into the tournament that matters most.
“The hardest part about coming back is dealing with trying to get your stamina back,” Dalatri said. “But I guess I feel pretty close. I don’t think Coach would send me out there if he thought anything otherwise. I’m just lucky I’m out there really. That’s the only thing I’m looking at. Like I’ve got a new perspective on just baseball in general. It got taken away from me for so long. I’m just happy I’m out there and giving us a chance to win.”
Even with Friday’s win, the Tar Heels will be forced to watch this weekend’s ACC tournament semifinals and finals from the sidelines while they wait to find out their NCAA regional matchups on Monday.
At least now they won’t have to make the wait sitting on a two-game losing streak.
In that respect, the game was anything but meaningless.
“Anytime you can win and your kids feel confident, Fox said, “It’s probably just what we needed.”