DURHAM – The bus ride from Durham Bulls Athletic Park to Boshamer Stadium is 11.2 miles. It’s not quite as short a distance as the journey from the Dean Smith Center to Cameron Indoor Stadium (10.7 miles), but it’s close.
But on Wednesday night, those 11.2 miles will feel like an eternity for the No. 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels after their 5-4 loss to No. 12 seed Pittsburgh to open the ACC tournament.
It was a game where Pitt (29-25) had all the little things go right. From spectacular defensive efforts in the outfield to execution with runners in scoring position to just being a better team offensively, the Tar Heels (37-18) were beaten by a better team on Wednesday.
And thanks to Pitt’s 2-1 win over Georgia Tech on Tuesday, the Panthers clinched the best record in Pool A, moving Pitt on to the semifinals on Saturday and sending the Tar Heels home to await their NCAA tournament fate after their essentially meaningless, for the ACC tournament at least, game against Georgia Tech on Friday.
A frustrating night for Coach Mike Fox and company to be sure, particularly because UNC appeared to be in control of the game from first pitch. The Tar Heels scored two quick runs in the top of the first on a RBI-groundout from Kyle Datres and a RBI-single from Ike Freeman to open up a 2-0 lead.
After starter Cooper Criswell gave up a run in the bottom frame, the UNC appeared to be cruising, tacking on a third run in the top of the third after Brandon Martarano drew a two-out walk with the bases loaded and what looked to be three more when Jackson Hesterlee smoked a ball to deep centerfield the next at bat.
But Pittsburgh center fielder Frank Maldonado had other plans, tracking the ball back to the fence, stretching his arm out and sacrificing his body to stop the rally.
At that point, momentum shifted. The Panthers ripped off two doubles to open up the bottom of the third, followed by a catcher’s interference and an RBI-single to tie the game 3-3 and chase Criswell for Josh Hiatt, who stopped the bleeding.
UNC would take the lead 4-3 in the top of the 5th, when a bases loaded double play would score Brandon Riley, but that one run lead would not be enough.
The bottom of the seventh is when Hiatt flirted with fire one too many times. The sophomore had been pitching well up that point, but he had been dancing in and out of trouble each inning. A bases loaded strike out in the bottom of the fifth stranded three Panthers, and double play ended a two-men on, one-man out threat in the sixth.
But after four-pitch walk just after the seventh inning stretch, a strike out and another walk, Coach Mike Fox pulled Hiatt for Brett Daniels, who promptly gave up an RBI double down the third base line to tie the game. The very next pitch, Pitt executed a perfect suicide squeeze play, sacrificing Cole MacLaren to score Caleb Parry from third for the eventual winning run.
UNC only had five hits on the evening, though the Tar Heels did reach base eight times via walk. There were no UNC extra base hits, however, a product of Pitt's power arms throwing in the mid-90s out of the bullpen, failing to push runs across in crucial situations down the stretch.
While UNC can no longer win the ACC tournament title, Friday's tilt with the No. 8 seeded Yellow Jackets will be important for maintaining the Tar Heels likely Top-8 seed for the NCAA tournament. UNC dropped from No. 5 in RPI entering the night's game to No. 8. Another loss would likely drop the Tar Heels below that top-8 threshold, meaning that while they would still host a regional next weekend, they'd would not be guaranteed homefield should they advance to the super regional.
In his post game presser, Fox said ace Gianluca Dalatri, who made his first pitching appearance in nearly two months last weekend, will get the ball against the Yellow Jackets on Friday.