This year’s ACC baseball season appeared to be a breakthrough year for Triangle teams. North Carolina, NC State and Duke were ranked in or near the Top 10 all season long and entered the ACC tournament as three of the top four seeds.
Then, over a three-day span, the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and Blue Devils went a combined 2-4, getting eliminated from pool play by five-seed Louisville, six-seed Florida State and Pitt, who had the 12th and final seed. It’s just the second time this year that the three teams have combined for a 2-4 record: March 9-10 saw the Heels lose twice to Louisville, while State and Duke split with Boston College and UVA, respectively (although the Pack and Blue Devils went on to win those series).
Needless to say, the tailspin at the DBAP stung the teams more. The Tar Heels saw themselves get bounced from the tournament by a Pitt team that they swept earlier in the season by a combined 32-5 score and led in the ACC Tournament at the seventh-inning stretch.
“Well, you’re going to play close games. You’re going to have guys on base. You’ve got to get a big hit,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “For us, I mean, we just — when we don’t play defense, we have a hard time winning. … Just got to give them credit. They stepped up there and got a base hit after a couple walks, and we didn’t. It’s just baseball. It’s part of it. But we don’t make a couple plays in the outfield, we don’t field a bunt, we have a passed ball, just probably five or six things that — the takeaway from our team is we can’t do that. You can’t do that in a regional game or you’re not going to win.”
State lost to a Florida State team that had beaten it on back-to-back walk-off hits the previous weekend in Tallahassee. Like Duke against Louisville, it fell behind 4-0 early and couldn’t recover.
The Wolfpack also lost their tournament opener, in a meaningless game against Virginia. Duke beat Wake Forest in a 13-inning bullpen-taxing marathon of a meaningless game the day before the showdown against Louisville.
“I’m extremely proud of our team,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “I’m proud of our team today. I’m not talking about the season. I’m talking about what they did today. For a team that played 13 innings yesterday and got down big early today, you will never see a team in my opinion play harder in a big separation like that ballgame was. Guys laying out, leaving their feet to make plays.”
Having the top teams eliminated in pool play is nothing new for the ACC, which continues to tinker with a tournament format that drew criticism this year. This year’s championship game saw Florida State top Louisville for its third title in four years. The Noles have won those championships while seeded fourth, sixth and eighth.
In the last five ACC tourneys, only one team seeded in the top three — No. 2 North Carolina last year — has made the championship game. Since the last one-two matchup in 2011, only two top-three seeds have made the title game.
“I don’t know,” State coach Elliott Avent said of the tournament format. “We sit there as coaches, the ACC, all of us, we all try to figure out a scenario, and we’ve gone back and forth. I mean, the double elimination I’ve always thought was the best thing because then every game means something. You’ve got to play to advance. But then you wind up playing six or seven games, five games, whatever. You run your pitching ragged from a year that’s already been 56 games.”
“I’ve seen some people say there’s some meaningless games going on,” Avent added. “I don’t know if I’ve ever played in a meaningless game in my life. We went out there and tried to win. If you don’t try to win at everything you do — you can’t turn a switch on and off.”
Each of the teams will have a week to recover before starting NCAA play. State and Carolina will each host regionals, while Duke, whose DBAP home isn’t available this weekend, was sent on the road, rather than having on-campus park Jack Coombs Field host.
Not that playing at the DBAP helped the Blue Devils during the ACC Tournament.
“We had expectations of winning, and we didn’t do it,” said Duke senior infielder Max Miller. “And regardless of (where we’re playing) next week, we’re going to be ready to go.”