Holliday: Three NCAA trips for Triangle teams

May 28, 2019

For the fourth time since 2010, the Atlantic Coast Conference will send at least eight of its 14 baseball programs to the NCAA Tournament. Three of the eight, including No. 14 national seed North Carolina, will host regional tournaments. And for the second straight year, all three Triangle teams make the field, as NC State prepares to do battle in the Greenville Regional and Duke gets the call to take on Texas A&M in the Morgantown Regional.

Here are some other ACC bullet points:

-Georgia Tech earns the nation’s No. 3 seed

-Louisville, despite a poor showing in the ACC Tournament, gets the No. 7 seed

-Florida State makes it 40-for-40 for retiring Coach Mike Martin making NCAAs, playing in Athens Regional.

-Miami is assigned to difficult Starkville Regional as a No. 2 seed.

-Clemson will play as a No. 3 seed in the Oxford Regional.

-Virginia, which won it all in 2015, and Wake Forest did not make the field.

-Duke and Florida State were two of the last four teams to make their way in.

North Carolina makes the NCAA Tournament for the 32nd time in program history, and the Tar Heels will play as a top 16 seed hosting a Regional at Boshamer Stadium. Returning to the Bosh was hardly a foregone conclusion ten days ago for the Heels after getting flattened twice by NC State in Chapel Hill. However, Mike Fox’s club significantly enhanced its resume over five days at the ACC Baseball Championships in Durham. And now for the first time since 2013, UNC heads to the NCAA Tournament as ACC Champion. No road trip for the Tar Heels after all.

UNC did not exactly terrorize opposing pitching staffs at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, but the Tar Heels made the most of their opportunities at the plate. Pinch hitter Caleb Roberts drew a rare walk-off hit by pitch against Virginia after the Tar Heels loaded the bases in extra innings to close out a great pitcher’s duel with the Cavaliers. The Heels battled back from a 5-0 deficit against Miami; Michael Busch’s game-tying home run in the eighth stands out there, along with Ike Freeman’s eventual game winning sacrifice fly in the eleventh inning. Normally-light-hitting Dallas Tessar delivered the hit that broke open the Boston College win in the ACC semifinals. Sunday against Georgia Tech, Tessar again came through, stroking a two-out single to erase a 1-0 GT lead in the fifth.

Other big DBAP moments at the plate included left-hand power hitter Busch sending a bunt down the third base line for a hit in defiance of the Georgia Tech shift that put most of the Yellow Jackets’ defense on the other side of the infield. That bunt was quickly followed by ACC Freshman of the Year Aaron Sabato’s blast over the wall in right centerfield, giving the Tar Heels the lead for good in the ACC’s final 2019 conference game. You also have to talk about Ashton McGee’s home run a few minutes later. Danny Serretti had gotten a base hit - as he often did over the course of Championship Week - and then proceeded to wear out Georgia Tech relief pitcher Jake Lee with his menacing leads off first base. Lee, after throwing over to first at least half a dozen times trying to hold Serretti, served up a gopher ball to McGee, giving UNC a huge 5-1 lead. This had to be a sweet moment for McGee, who went 0-5 with four strikeouts against Virginia and hit into a double play during a 0-4 start against Miami. McGee did eventually single home a run against the Canes in the eleventh inning, and that seemed to turn his week around.

Pitching was at least as important as hitting in UNC’s ACC title run, probably more. Tyler Baum gave Carolina a supreme start, holding Virginia, which has the ACC’s third-highest batting average, scoreless until the seventh inning. Joey Lancellotti came on in relief, pitched out of a huge jam, and got the win. Austin Love saved the day in UNC’s second game of the week against Miami. Taking over after a very rough outing for starter Austin Bergner, Love entered the game with a 4-0 deficit and held the Canes to just one run over six plus frames. Without that performance by Love, UNC loses on Friday, never makes the semifinals, and much of what I’ve just written about never happens. Lancellotti and Hansen Butler also pitched well against Miami and both followed up with strong outings against Georgia Tech. Over the course of the ACC Championship, UNC relief pitchers worked 24 innings and allowed just five earned runs.

The Sunday appearances by Butler and Lancellotti might have been the most impressive of all. The pair held GT, which has one of the best bat attacks in the country, to one meaningless run in the ninth inning. And Tech’s first run in UNC’s 10-2 victory over the Jackets came on a throwing error by catcher Brandon Martorano (who more than made up for that with a three run homer later).

Poor fielding played a big part in the twin drubbings UNC suffered at the hands of NC State on the third weekend in May. But Carolina played error-free baseball in its first ACC Championship contest against Virginia, and made just one error each against Boston College and Georgia Tech. Only in the Miami game did UNC’s intermittent fielding woes surface, and those two early errors helped the Canes build that big early lead. That game should serve as a reminder of the importance of smart play in the field going forward.

UNC is at home this week in the NCAA’s, but will face a challenge from Liberty, which beat the Heels once in two meetings during the regular season, and Tennessee, which finished 38-19 in the powerful SEC and boasts a deep pitching staff. Mike Fox’s club will need more of what we saw in Durham if the Tar Heels are to advance.

NC State’s dramatic four-run ninth-inning rally against Wake Forest Thursday night now seems like a distant memory, shunted aside by that 11-0 mercy rule pasting at the hands of Florida State, and an even more devastating 9-2 loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC semifinals. And so in a span of 48 hours, NC State’s NCAA Tournament stock took a pretty big hit, transitioning from likely Regional Tournament host with a commensurate No. 1 seed on the Selection Committee’s big board to a No. 2 seed and road trip designate.

How did this happen? The Wolfpack generated great momentum prior to the ACC’s tournament week, winning 8 of 11 games, and of course twice tattooing eventual ACC champ UNC. But the bats that rocked the league during most of May were seldom seen at the DBAP, apart from the ninth inning of the Wake Forest game. NC State got just one hit against Florida State and managed only six against Georgia Tech - all from the top half of the batting order.

Want a metaphor for the Wolfpack’s week in Durham? Look no further that Saturday’s second inning when State put its two leadoff hitters on base and couldn’t bat either one of them home. Despite the paucity of power at the plate - Patrick Bailey’s RBI triple notwithstanding - State still stayed in contention through the middle innings. The Pack’s dazzling defense made plays - shortstop Will Wilson with a fielding gem in the first inning to put down an early Yellow Jacket outbreak, and Johnny Butler later making a diving catch in center, robbing Tech of a double or triple. Still, when spray-hitting Michael Guldberg cracked a three-run homer, his first of the season, the Wolfpack offered no reply.

State’s inability to score put more pressure on its pitching staff. Saturday starter Jason Parker pitched well enough until the home run by Guldberg. David Harrison provided two innings of quality relief to keep the game at 4-1 into the eighth. But Coach Elliott Avent needed five different pitchers to secure Tech’s final four outs. NC State ranks second in the ACC in team ERA, allowing just 3.86 runs per nine innings. We didn’t see anywhere near that kind of result in the ACC Championship, though, where Pack pitching was pummeled for 25 runs in three games. In truth, State’s moundsmen are accustomed to pitching with a lead. They got that opportunity just one time in Durham - in the bottom of the ninth against Wake Forest.

Next up for the Wolfpack: a road trip, though a short one, to Greenville. State will first play Campbell, a team that owns one win over the Pack in two meetings this season. Then NCSU will likely duel with East Carolina. These schools have a great history through time, but have not met this season. The Wolfpack team that began the season 27-2. The team that flattened Carolina - that group is certainly capable of reaching the Super Regional against the winner of the Louisville Regional. But some think this will be the year ECU reaches the College World Series. Anything less than NC State’s best hitting and pitching could result in a sudden end to this season.

Duke Coach Chris Pollard appeared quite confident during a Saturday TV interview that his Blue Devils would again make the NCAA Tournament. And why not? A team which began 3-9 in the ACC, Duke won 17 of its final 28 games, sparked by the return of injured leadoff hitter Joey Loperfido. That 17 included a win over top-eight seed Texas Tech, the team that ended the Blue Devils’ 2018 season in the Super Regional after the Devils improbably won the Athens Regional down in SEC country.

Unlike NC State, Duke did nothing to diminish its NCAA standing last week in Durham. Duke survived a character-building slugfest with Notre Dame, where the Blue Devils lost freshman star Evan Murray to injury, and their pitching staff escaped a bases loaded jam in the eighth inning. Then with Wil Hoyle replacing Murray at shortstop, Duke played toe to toe with ACC runner up Georgia Tech for eight innings. The Devils ultimately fell victim to a brilliant individual performance from Tristin English, who pitched two perfect innings of relief and delivered the game winning hit in the ninth.

Duke certainly impressed in the field Friday, playing error-free baseball. Blue Devils’ center fielder Kennie Taylor, an All ACC performer, made a diving catch in the sixth to rob Luke Waddell of a run scoring hit. Although Duke starter Ben Gross gave up two home runs, the Blue Devils limited the powerful Yellow Jackets to five runs, their second lowest output in four games during the ACC Championship.

The one area where Duke perhaps underperformed would be hitting. Blue Devil runners filled the bases in the first and third innings against GT ace Connor Thomas. Duke scored three in the first, but just one in the third, as two potentially big innings were cut short by the double play ball. And so, instead of leading 6-4 or 7-4, Duke found itself locked in a tense 4-4 duel with the Jackets. The Blue Devils managed only one hit over the last three innings-an infield single by Loperfido.

Having lost most of the key players that produced Duke’s first ever Super Regional appearance, and as one of the very last teams to make the field here in 2019, there is little pressure now on the Blue Devils. Most of the focus at the Morgantown Regional will be on host West Virginia, which put together a strong finish in the Big 12, and Texas A&M of the all-powerful SEC. Duke faces the Aggies first.

This marks the 16th straight year the ACC has received at least six bids to the NCAA Tournament. The league’s all time best showing: 10 bids in 2016. Eight ACC teams made the post season in 2010 and again in 2013. From here on out though, it’s not about which league got the most bids - and of course the SEC got 10. It’s about on-field performance. The ACC has sent at least one team to the College World Series every year since 2005, a streak of 13 seasons. But as we saw in 2016, getting ten teams into the tournament does not necessarily create a fast track to Omaha. Only Miami made the CWS in 2016 and the Canes quickly lost two games and headed home. The ACC, which has just one national championship to show for its many trips to Omaha, could really use a post-season like 2008. That year just six teams got bids to the tournament but four made the Super Regionals and three reached the College World Series.

As the ACC gets ready to launch its much-awaited cable tv network, which should give ACC baseball much more visibility (note that while most ACC games this week will only be video streamed, many SEC games will be televised on the SEC Network) some deep tournament runs could really matter.

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