CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—When the 64-team NCAA tournament field was announced last week, the nation’s No. 1 seed went to North Carolina, which appeared to get a favorable regional field.
No Southeastern Conference No. 2 seed; instead, that was Florida Atlantic out of the Sun Belt. Towson, with an RPI in the 90s, as a No. 3, and first-time regional team Canisius as a No. 4.
Instead of a cakewalk, however, the Tar Heels got battle after battle, edging Canisius 6-3 and Towson 8-5 before losing 3-2 Sunday to Florida Atlantic after stranding 15 runners.
Monday’s regional championship, which stretched into Tuesday morning, will be all anyone remembers from this regional, however. The Owls scored six runs in the ninth and three in the 12th but squandered two- and three-run leads before succumbing to the Tar Heels in a 12-11, 13-inning UNC victory.
Cody Stubbs was the last hero in a game full of them on both sides, driving a one-out, bases-loaded single down the left-field line to bring home the winning run and sending the Owls (42-22) home for the season.
"I was going to get the job done no matter what,” Stubbs said. “I was mad at myself (because) I chased a couple bad pitches, but there was no way I wasn't going to put the ball in play right there. I told myself, 'No matter what, you're putting the ball in play.' "
Stubbs had been down 0-2 in the count but smacked a hard line drive for the game-winner, his fourth hit of the evening and second RBI, giving him 76 to go with a team-best .372 average.
"That might have been the greatest baseball game I've ever been a part of,” said North Carolina head coach Mike Fox, whose team blew a 6-2 lead in the ninth. “I said after the 18-inning (ACC tournament) game against (North Carolina) State that I didn't have any words to describe that game, and I certainly don't have any to describe this one. You watched it. We withstood a grand slam, a three-run homer, (and a) two-run homer.
“We talk about toughness all the time and trying to recruit tough kids. You can't coach tough kids, but we sure do have them on our team. I'm very proud of them, and that's an understatement."
FAU tested the Tar Heels’ toughness all night, and especially late. UNC relentlessly pressured Owls pitchers in the first seven innings, taking a seemingly safe 6-2 lead with Chaz Frank’s RBI single. Fox had gone to his bullpen early, bringing in freshman stopper Trent Thornton with one on and none out in the fourth, and Thornton plowed through the Owls for four frames.
But when Thornton ran into trouble in the eighth, the game got wonky. With two out and none on for FAU, Thornton came out, and the Tar Heels called on junior lefthander Kent Emanuel, their ace. He had started Saturday and threw 124 pitches, and on one day’s rest, he got three outs in the eighth. But Emanuel was on fumes in the ninth and it showed.
Emanuel gave up a solo homer to Corey Keller, the fifth home run of the regional for Keller and second of the game. One out later he walked Ricky Santiago, who looked to be forced out on an ensuing grounder by Mitch Morales. Santiago eluded the tag and was not called out despite running well into the grass, seemingly out of the baseline. Emanuel walked two more and Fox called on his No. 2 starter, Benton Moss, who had pitched Friday. Moss promptly gave up a monster grand slam to Tyler Rocklein, who hit the ball well beyond the left-field fence, and the Owls were up 8-6.
The game featured the passion and competitiveness that put college baseball in stark contrast to the minor leagues and even the majors at times. But it also featured both teams using starting pitchers on short rest out of the bullpen, one of the worst and most regrettable staples of the postseason in the college game.
"We feel like we owe it to our team to put the best guys out there to try to win the most important game of our season, to try to advance,” Fox said of his pitching moves, which later included using Sunday starter Hobbs Johnson for one batter in the 13th. “All these guys come to us and say, 'I've got an inning,' or, 'I've got a batter,' and that's what some of them got. They are competitors. They want to go out.
“I'll stand by our reputation. I don't think we put any of them at risk. I'm proud of all of them for doing the job that they did."
The Owls also asked a lot of their pitchers, using Saturday’s starter Austin Gomber—on one day’s rest after throwing 95 pitches—in an ineffective two-batter stint. They also rode their senior closer Hugh Adams, the Sun Belt Conference all-time saves leader, as he wound up tossing 85 pitches. He couldn’t hold two leads—first in the bottom of the ninth when Stubbs doubled, Michael Russell singled and stole second, and Mike Zolk delivered a two-run, game-tying single.
“I thought when we hit the grand slam and I sent Hugh out there, I thought we were going to a super regional,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “Give those guys credit, they’re a great team and they kept coming back.”
The game was tied 8-8 until the 12th, when Chris McCue—in his third inning of work—gave up a three-run, two-out homer to FAU catcher Levi Meyer. But the Heels got through to Adams again, starting the bottom of the 12th with two singles and two walks to bring home a run. Mike Sylvestri (4-3) walked in a run, then got the first out before Zolk singled to left to bring home the tying run. FAU left fielder Geoff Jimenez kept the game tied by throwing out Stubbs, trying to score from second, at home on a close play, and Sylvestri got one more out to send the game to the 13th.
Landon Lassiter singled with one out to start the rally, and Sylvestri walked Colin Moran and hit Brian Holberton with a pitch to load the bases. That set up Stubbs’ heroics, just the last in a game full of them.