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Triangle fans could see three teams advance to baseball semifinals

May 23, 2019

Count ESPN baseball analyst Kyle Peterson among the supporters of the ACC’s pool play tournament format. The silver-throated Peterson, considered one of the best pitchers ever to play at Stanford, likes the ACC’s set up for three reasons: “It’s fair, it rewards the regular season, and it saves pitching,” Peterson said. Some among the local media, however, don’t like the pool play format, now in its third year. The biggest criticism: It results in too many meaningless games.

Here’s how it works. The ACC takes 12 of its 14 teams (Syracuse does not field a baseball program) and divides them into four pools of three teams. Each squad is guaranteed two games, one against each of the other members of its pool. The pool winner is determined one of two ways: Either one of the three teams will defeat the other two, or the three will split, creating a tie at 1-1. In that case, the highest seeded team advances. This a reward for regular season success.

The four pool winners play single-elimination baseball on Saturday and Sunday to determine the tournament champion. But to the point about meaningless games: #8 Clemson lost the tournament’s opening game to #12 Boston College, which had not won an ACC Tournament game since 2010. The Eagles later shocked #1 Louisville. So early in the week, BC has already clinched a spot in the semifinals of this ACC Championship, while Clemson and Louisville are left to play a meaningless game.

Coaches and players would tell you, however, that while this kind of game won’t impact the ACC Baseball Championship, the outcome matters for NCAA consideration. Clemson has played its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble and badly needs a win to boost its resume with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Louisville’s case is less dire, but the Cardinals certainly don’t want to take a two-game losing streak into next week’s NCAA competition where Louisville will almost certainly play host to a four-team regional.

How else might the ACC determine a tournament champion? I saw one Twitter post suggesting the league take just the top two seeds and have them play a best-of-three series. To me, that’s not inclusive enough. I did see another Tweet suggesting a return to the old eight-team, double-elimination format. But that is not as inclusive as the current 12-team set up. Plus double elimination, which many conferences still use including the SEC, results in too much baseball for some teams. Double-elimination can really stress a pitching staff headed into the NCAA Tournament. So for now in the ACC, pool play rules.

Duke made it to the NCAA Super Regional in 2018, the first time in school history that happened. The program lost many of the top players from that team to graduation and/or professional baseball. Yet here in 2019 Chris Pollard’s much younger team has fought back from a 3-9 start in ACC competition and now looks to do some damage in the postseason.

Duke kicked off ACC Championship play with a character building 10-6 win over hard-hitting Notre Dame. So the Blue Devils get a one-game opportunity Friday. They will play #2 Georgia Tech. The winner advances to the semifinals Saturday.

Playing on the weekend is never a bad thing in advance of Selection Monday.

Beating Notre Dame was crucial to any kind of postseason run for Duke, and the Irish did not fall easily. The Irish proved formidable at the plate in their gold batting helmets, smacking 12 hits to just eight for Duke. But Blue Devil pitchers repeatedly pitched out of trouble. And Duke manufactured offense, exploiting 12 walks, a hit batsman and four Notre Dame errors to score 10 runs.

Duke’s first inning set the tone for the night as Joey Loperfido and Ethan Murray sandwiched walks around an infield hit by All-ACC centerfielder Kennie Taylor. Catcher Michael Rosenberg followed with a grand slam – the 23rd four-run, four–bagger in ACC Championship history.

Notre Dame would never catch up, although the Irish brought the tying and go ahead runs to the plate in the fifth and eighth innings. Matt Dockman pitched out of jams both times while the Irish scored four unearned runs, cutting a 6-1 Duke margin to 6-5. Then, after a three-run Duke seventh pushed the lead to 10-6, closer Thomas Girard pitched his way into and then out of trouble in the Notre Dame eighth. The Irish loaded the bases, but Girard slammed the door.

Pollard said after Duke’s win Tuesday night he was disappointed Girard did not make the All-ACC team, noting that his numbers compare favorably with other closers in the league, adding “he has not blown a save all year.”

The Blue Devils suffered a major blow when star freshman shortstop Ethan Murray was hit in the head with a pitch. Murray walked off the field holding a towel over his face. He underwent surgery Wednesday.

Pollard noticed a difference on the field for a couple of innings after Murray was struck: “We had the injury, and it was clear to me that it affected our team. It affected our team emotionally. We got on our heels a little bit,” the Duke coach observed.

Pollard praised Wil Hoyle, who took Murray’s place and made a couple of difficult plays at shortstop.

“Wil Hoyle goes out and prepares every day like he’s going to be in the lineup that day,” Pollard said. “And we talk about next-man-up mentality, and we talk about the fact that you never know when your number is going to be called, but you’ve got to be ready. And he was a great example of that today.”

Thanks to Hoyle, timely hitting and clutch pitching by Dockman and Girard, Duke will play a game that matters against Georgia Tech, whom Pollard says has one of the best offenses in the country.

North Carolina’s 2019 campaign suffered significant damage in the season ending series against NC State. The Tar Heels may have lost the chance to host an NCAA Regional. They certainly did lose the chance to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, actually falling from a possible two seed in the ACC Championship all the way down to five, behind Pool D rival Miami, which is seeded fourth. Most of all, Carolina played poorly twice in its two final regular season games, with major fielding lapses, control problems on the mound and little pop at the plate. The best way for Mike Fox’s bunch to move past those 11-2 and 11-0 losses to the Wolfpack? A good showing in Durham. The Tar Heels did that Wednesday night, slipping past a good Virginia team 3-2 in 10 innings.

UNC has proven to be somewhat schizophrenic in the field this season, intermingling cleanly played contests with games featuring multiple errors. Against UVA, the Tar Heels not only played error-free baseball, but also made some outstanding plays that took away Cavalier scoring chances – Dallas Tessar reaching over the wall to catch a pop foul in the third; Dylan Enwiller roaming behind second base to take away a Virginia hit in the late innings.

UNC’s pitching looked stout as well. Tyler Baum rolled through 7 1/3 innings, allowing only a home run to Nate Eikhoff. Joey Lancellotti replaced Baum with a runner on second and one out in the eighth. Lancellotti could not prevent Brendan Rivoli from tying the game, but the Tar Heel reliever did pitch out of a ninth inning jam after allowing two hits and a walk-but no Virginia runs. And he retired the Cavaliers quickly in the tenth. Virginia ranks third in the ACC in batting, hitting a collective .295. Holding that team to two runs is impressive. Both Baum and Lancellotti avoided bases on balls.

UNC did not exactly swing the big lumber against Virginia, but credit Cavalier ace Chesdin Harrington and long reliever Andrew Abbott. Tar Heel coach Mike Fox certainly did. “Those are two pretty darned good arms we’re facing,” Fox said. “Abbott is, you know, I mean, that’s 91 to 93 from the left side with a terrific breaking ball. You’re lucky to get in there and get a good swing off against him.”

The Tar Heels did have some big moments at the plate. ACC Freshman of the Year Aaron Sabato doubled and scored the game’s first run on a single by Ike Freeman. A few innings later, Michael Busch smacked a tremendous triple off the wall. He then scored on a double by Danny Serretti. But that’s all the damage the Tar Heels could do, even though they were able to draw four walks during the game’s first nine innings. But happily for the Heels, the tenth became a walk fest. Carolina, which leads the ACC in walks, picked up a base on balls from Abbott. Virginia changed pitchers and right hand reliever Devin Ortiz walked two more Tar Heels to load the bases. Ortiz then struck pinch hitter Caleb Roberts in the hip with a pitch, a walkoff HBP so to speak.

Going forward, the Tar Heels will need more from Ashton McGee, who went 0-5 with four strike outs, or Enwiller, who went 0-2 hitting into a double play. Those two players stranded seven runners in scoring position during the game. Still, Fox was quite pleased overall. “Just a good win for us. Obviously a terrific game, I thought,” Fox said. “I think Virginia is really good, and to hold them to two runs is a credit to Tyler and to Joey. And it’s just nice to get a win obviously to start the tournament. The key for us is not making mistakes and limiting our walks.”

Carolina meets Miami Friday afternoon, with the winner moving into Saturday’s semifinals opposite Boston College. The Tar Heels took two of three from the Hurricanes back in March. Can they win one more in May?

NC State, which began the season 27-2, then suffered a serious nosedive in April, is once again the hottest team in the Triangle. The Wolfpack has won eight of its last 11, including those two thumpings of UNC last weekend at Boshamer Stadium. So, based on recent history, NC State has the best chance of giving ACC baseball fans a local team to cheer on this weekend.

On the other hand, State’s bracket is deceptively difficult, with #10 Wake Forest and #6 Florida State joining the Pack in Pool C. Wake actually took two of three from the Wolfpack when the teams met in Winston-Salem, and yes that was in April.

Florida State, which lost to Wake Tuesday in this ACC Championship, figures to play with great emotion against NC State. The Seminoles, who have had as much success in this tourney as anyone, hope to send legendary coach Mike Martin off to retirement (after 40 seasons) with one last NCAA Tournament trip. FSU might need to defeat State to secure a bid.

NC State looked near unbeatable in Chapel Hill, winning the last two games by a combined 22-2. The Wolfpack is led by All ACC shortstop Will Wilson. Wilson ranks as one of the ACC’s top hitters and was voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. State catcher Patrick Bailey joined Wilson on the all league first team, as voted on by ACC coaches. Outfielder Tyler McDonough and first baseman Evan Edwards, .300 hitters both, earned second and third team honors. NC State did not have a pitcher selected to any of the All ACC teams, but the Wolfpack staff ranks second in the ACC with a team ERA of 3.86. Opponents hit just .253 against NC State pitching. Only Louisville is better.

For three days, NC State has had to play the waiting game. Finally on Thursday night at 7, the Wolfpack will take the field-the twelfth and final team to see action in this ACC Championship. And State will be playing the pesky Deacons, who have three of the league’s top hitters and have already won a tournament game. I don’t see how waiting all this time can be an advantage for the Wolfpack. But the way Coach Elliott Avent’s team has been playing, the wait may not matter.

This will be the last ACC Championship at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the near future. The International League recently passed a rule preventing its teams from blacking out dates in their ballparks. The ACC requires a seven-day blackout to stage its championship.

It’s difficult to understand how a league like the IL with 14 teams cannot manage scheduling around a seven-day blackout in one ballpark once each May. The new rule also affects Charlotte and Louisville, two other cities that have hosted the ACC. The hope is that after a year or two of experimenting with no blackout scheduling the IL will relent and again give teams flexibility to black out dates for outside baseball, concerts and other special events. But ACC fans should enjoy this weekend of baseball, which so far includes the possibility of three Triangle teams playing Saturday. There are no more ACC Championships in Durham currently on the horizon.

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