DURHAM — The North Carolina Tar Heels won their first ACC Baseball Tournament since 2013 and just their second in the last 29 years, going undefeated in four games at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park last week.
Unlike its previous title six years ago, when Carolina entered as the top seed, this year’s championship was a bit of a surprise. The Heels were the fifth seed, second in their pool.
“Unbelievably proud of my team the way we played this week here in Durham,” coach Mike Fox said. “And it’s just special. It’s hard to win, it’s hard to win a championship in this league, in any sport, but certainly in baseball.”
Here’s a look at the key plays that helped the Tar Heels clear the way to a title in Durham.
5. In the tournament’s very first game, Clemson went to extra innings with Boston College, who entered the tournament as the bottom seed after a 12-18 record. With one out and two on in the 11th, BC’s Peter Burns hit a roller to first baseman Chad Fairey, who misplayed it, allowing one run to score. The Eagles would add a second unearned run to pull the upset victory over the Tigers. It was the first error of the season for Fairey, who moved to first from left field in the eighth inning, following a Clemson pinch hitter the previous inning and it eliminated Clemson. Boston College went on to knock off the tournament’s top seed, Louisville, the next day, to improbably advance to the semifinals from the 12th seed and face the Tar Heels for a shot at the title game. “I feel bad for Chad Fairey,” Clemson coach Monte Lee said. “The ground ball that jumped up, took a big hop, just took a tough hop on him. And that’s what gave them the lead. But that’s baseball. That’s part of the game.”
4. Facing No. 9 seed Virginia in a Wednesday game where the loser would be eliminated from advancement, UNC saw its early two-run lead erased by a late Virginia rally. Three walks loaded the bases with one out. Pinch hitter Caleb Roberts was hit by a pitch for a rare walk-off rally that didn’t include a base hit, keeping the Heels alive for another day. “I’ve never been in a game with a walk-off hit by pitch,” said UNC third baseman Ike Freeman, “but a win’s a win.”
3. The Heels’ second pool play game was against fourth-seeded Miami, the top seed in their group. Carolina quickly found itself down 5-0 after three innings. UNC had cut the lead to 5-3 in the eighth inning when Michael Busch came up with one on and one out. He hit the first pitch he saw over the wall in right field to complete the comeback and tie the game. The Heels went on to win in 11 innings and advance to the semifinals. Busch would go on to win tournament MVP, hitting .400 with two home runs, four RBI and 1.438 OPS for the week. “To get punched in the mouth like that early and come back and win the game. Just a credit to them and their resiliency,” Fox said. “We talk all the time about how you respond to things, and just kind of challenged them there after the third inning and got great response from everybody in the dugout.”
2. In the semifinals against Boston College, UNC jumped out to a 7-1 lead through five innings. The Heels’ cruise to the final game hit rough waters in the sixth, however, when the Eagles rallied for four runs, cutting the lead to two. The Tar Heels responded immediately in the bottom of the frame, ending Boston College’s hopes of a comeback. Busch led off with a single, and Danny Serretti tripled in two runs as part of a three-run UNC rally. Boston College wouldn’t score again, and the Heels would play for a title. “We knew they weren’t going to go away, and those kind of innings happen,” Fox said. “It’s how you respond to them that’s important, and that’s what we did.”
1. In the championship game, UNC fell behind 1-0 early before tying the score in fifth. That set the stage for more sixth-inning magic, once again triggered by Busch, who led off with a single. Aaron Sabato followed with a two-run home run. The Heels would add another two-run shot later in the inning, and the rout was on.