DURHAM — The ACC baseball tournament has only just begun. But for North Carolina, it’s already as good as over.
Even though the top-seeded Tar Heels still have one game left in pool play, Friday against Georgia Tech, they were eliminated from semifinal contention Tuesday with a 5-4 loss to No. 12 Pittsburgh.
The Panthers, who entered the postseason on a six-game losing streak, stayed close with some spectacular early defense, then pushed across just enough runs to win their second game in as many nights
Pitt (29-25) clinched Pool A by virtue of its 2-0 record. The best either UNC or Tech can do is 1-1. The loss was UNC’s fourth in five games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park this season.
This one, however, was by far the most stunning.
“You just have to give them credit,” Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. “They stepped up there and got a base hit after a couple of walks and we didn’t. That’s baseball. That’s part of it.”
UNC (37-18) began the game as though it was going to make quick work of its unheralded opponent by scoring twice — on an infield out by Kyle Datres and an Ike Freeman single. It might have gotten even more had it not been for a beautiful diving catch by right fielder Connor Perry on a sinking line drive by Ashton McGee for the third out.
The run-saving play was just a hint of what was to come by the Panthers, who had a different outfielder snuff out another Tar Heels rally two innings later. This time it was center fielder Frank Maldonado that perpetrated the thievery.
His catch on a bases-loaded drive by Jackson Hesterlee as he ran face-first into the outfield wall prevented the Tar Heels from adding to a 3-1 advantage and perhaps breaking the game open.
Maldonado then added to UNC’s woes by leading off the bottom of the third with a double and scoring on a double off the left field wall by David Yanni, who came around to score the tying run two batters later.
“The catch by Maldonado with the bases loaded was an incredible catch,” Fox said. “A lot of times, close games like that are won with one swing of the bat or a terrific defensive play. If he doesn’t make that catch, it’s probably 6-1 and it obviously changes the game. I thought that was the biggest play of the game.”
Perry made another outstanding play to end the sixth inning with a diving catch that prevented an extra-base hit by Michael Busch.
Between Pitt’s defense and the relief pitching of R.J. Freure and Derek West, UNC was only able to manage a single hit over the final seven innings. That was a leadoff single by Brandon Riley, which led to the go-ahead run.
But even then the Tar Heels should have had more after loading the bases with nobody out. The run scored on a rally-killing double play.
UNC finished the game with only four hits.
“We knew coming into the game that they had some arms that they needed to use to get us off balance and throw fastballs by us,” Busch said. “I give it to them. They pounded the zone. They were ready to pitch. I wouldn’t say we weren’t ready to hit, but their pitchers pitched very well tonight.
“Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. I felt we had good at-bats tonight. Some things just didn’t go our way.”
While the Panthers were busy silencing the Tar Heels’ bats, UNC closer Josh Hiatt was wiggling his way in and out of trouble over four innings out of the bullpen. He was able to hold onto the 4-3 lead until finally being done in by a pair of walks in the seventh.
Fox later admitted that he probably left the sophomore right-hander in a few batters too long, and it ended up costing his team when Chris Capass singled home the tying run off reliever Brett Daniels.
Pitt then took the lead for the first time in the game on a perfectly executed suicide squeeze bunt by eighth hitter Cole MacLaren — a .201 hitter.
“I said out loud, ‘This is a good time for them to squeeze,’ before it actually happened,” Fox said afterward. “Then I didn’t do anything about it. You have to give them credit. It was a great call, and obviously they executed it well.”
Fittingly, though, it was another defensive gem that finally put the Tar Heels away.
It came on the final out. With the tying run on base, Maldonado went back to the wall and made a leaping catch on Riley’s potential game-tying fly ball.
“I thought they played well,” said Fox, whose team outscored Pitt 32-5 in sweeping the regular season series between the teams. “They certainly played better than we did.”