DURHAM, N.C.—North Carolina and rival N.C. State played an epic 12-inning classic in the 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, with more than 10,000 fans packing Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park. North Carolina won that one 4-0, but the real winner was college baseball in the Tar Heel State, which gained new currency and significance.
The buildup for 2013 started with BA’s College Preview Issue, which featured the Wolfpack’s Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner and the Tar Heels’ Colin Moran and Kent Emanuel on the cover. They came to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on a cold January day for the photo shoot, joked with each other and, as Turner admitted, realized the other team’s players were “all right guys.”
The buildup continued through an inconclusive April series in Raleigh, with the teams splitting the first two games before the third one was rained out. It came to fruition this week, when the ACC tournament bracket set up with UNC as the No. 1 seed and N.C. State as the No. 4 seed, guaranteeing a matchup. It was set for Saturday night and lived up to its billing.
Rodon did his part in a masterful performance. The crowd did its part, with 11,392 fans showing up to break last year’s ACC tournament (and state of North Carolina college baseball record) for attendance. But the hitters didn’t do theirs, as the game stretched past 1 a.m. and became the longest game in ACC tourney history.
“When we were here in January,” Rodon said after the game was over early Sunday morning, “I wasn’t expecting 18 innings.”
Finally, in the 18th inning, North Carolina broke through with a run, as Cody Stubbs delivered a bloop single that scored Landon Lassiter with the go-ahead run. The Wolfpack got a runner to third with none out in the bottom of the 18th, but Chris Munnelly got two popouts and a groundout to squelch the threat as the Tar Heels held on for a 2-1 victory.
“I saw some of the best baseball I’ve ever seen,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said, “and I saw some of the worst. You guys can look at the box score and figure it out.”
The teams combined for 43 strikeouts—22 by N.C. State pitchers, 21 by North Carolina. The Wolfpack left 17 runners on base while the Tar Heels left 14. As UNC outfielder Chaz Frank said, “It felt like nobody wanted to win the ballgame.”
Pitching dominated the game on a dark night at DBAP with a full moon and a big strike zone. Rodon was masterful in setting the tone. He didn’t allow a baserunner until walking Cody Stubbs in the fifth, didn’t allow a hit until Stubbs singled in the seventh, and mowed down the Tar Heels over 10 innings. N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said it was as well as he’s ever seen Rodon pitch, and the numbers back it up: 10 innings, one hit, two walks and 14 strikeouts in 130 pitches for the national strikeout leader.
But his defense—him included—betrayed him in the eighth as North Carolina tied the score. Rodon walked Mike Zolk with one out, and after an error on third baseman Grant Clyde, the Tar Heels had runners on first-and-second. Chaz Frank grounded to first baseman Tarran Senay, and Senay initially looked to go to second base before throwing to Rodon covering at first. The throw got by Rodon, who was charged with the error. Zolk scored from second and the game was tied, as it would remain until the 18th.
“I learned a lesson on that play,” Rodon said. “I’ll never take my eye off the ball again. I was looking for the double play and I had my eye on Tarran . . . the ball got on me quick and got away from me.”
N.C. State had taken a 1-0 lead in the sixth when Senay and Grant Clyde hit back-to-back doubles off Hobbs Johnson with one out in the sixth.
But neither team could push runs across for several hours as the bullpens dominated. North Carolina freshman righthander Trent Thornton was nearly as impressive as Rodon, throwing 6.1 innings without giving up a hit while striking out seven. He threw 91 pitches in his longest outing as a reliever. Thornton began the year as a starter and topped out at 102 pitches against Princeton, but that was on March 19.
Chris McCue also gave UNC three scoreless innings, working out of a bases-loaded jam in the 13th by striking out Clyde and Brett Williams. Munnelly earned the victory with three scoreless innings, getting a popout to right field, a pop to second base and a groundout to end the game and strand Brett Williams at third base after a leadoff double and wild pitch.
“It was so late,” Munnelly said, “my nerves went to sleep.”
The game lasted too long, stretching 6 hours, 3 minutes. N.C. State sophomore catcher Brett Austin caught all 18 innings, as he’s caught virtually every inning for the team this season. Brian Holberton put in 18 innings for UNC—nine in left field, sandwiched around nine as the catcher in the middle innings. Lassiter scored the winning run after striking out in his first five at-bats, while N.C. State No. 9 hitter Logan Ratledge was the only starter who didn’t strike out on the night.
But there was excellence as well. Veteran Durham Bulls officials like longtime PA announcer Bill Law and George Habel, the vice president of the sports group at Capitol Broadcasting (which owns the Triple-A franchise), said they couldn’t remember the ballpark as loud or as alive. The Wolfpack and Tar Heels fans acquitted themselves well, with many staying to the end, a bitter end for a Wolfpack team looking to make it to the College World Series for the first time since 1968. Avent said it could be the kind of loss, with the missed opportunities and mistakes, that helps N.C. State in its quest to get back to Omaha, that helps it pay more attention to details it missed in this epic game.
The Tar Heels won’t have time to mull their mistakes over. They had less than 10 hours to get ready to play Virginia Tech for the ACC championship.