It all began with an error.
After Skye Bolt notched the first out in the eighth with a fly ball to right field, Brian Holberton hit a grounder to UVa shortstop Nick Howard, who bobbled the ball, allowing the base runner to reach first.
The Tar Heels had fallen into a bad habit of hitting balls directly at Cavaliers through the first seven innings. That changed with one down in the eighth.
“I kept writing on my lineup card, ‘hard-hit ball, hard-hit ball,’ and one time I looked down there and there was like 15 of them,” UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters following the game. “Then I looked on the scoreboard and we had seven hits, so you start to wonder, ‘well, is this just not going to be our night?’ Then I started thinking, ‘well, let’s mis-hit some balls.’”
That approach wasn’t needed, although UNC’s next seven batters would reach base by a variety of methods.
Michael Russell quickly capitalized on the error with a RBI triple into the gap in right center. Virginia pitcher Kyle Crockett, looking for his ACC-leading eighth save in league play, found the middle of Cody Stubbs’ back three pitches later to give Mike Zolk runners on the corners with one out.
The sophomore second baseman had already hit two balls to right field, including a two-run RBI double in the fourth inning. Zolk (2-4, 4 RBI) knew that Crockett hadn’t thrown a fastball all night, so he stepped to the plate looking for a slider and promptly smashed a hanger to the same gap for a two-run triple that tied the score at 5-5.
“Being able to face Crockett [on Thursday], we knew how good he was and we knew what he was going to come at us with mostly,” Zolk said. “Then I think we just pieced together a few hits with our competitiveness and that put us ahead.”
Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor elected to stay with his lefty closer, which proved to be a poor decision. Crockett walked Parks Jordan on five pitches and gave up the go-ahead run on Chaz Frank’s RBI single to left field.
Josh Sborz replaced Crockett, but the Tar Heels weren’t finished. Landon Lassiter notched his third hit of the night to score Jordan with a single to right field. Colin Moran then knocked in his 80th RBI of the season - joining Marshall Hubbard (2004) and Scott Johnson (1985) as the only Tar Heels to reach that plateau - beating out a potential double-play ball at first.
When it was over, UNC led 8-5 and would need just three Trent Thornton strikeouts in the ninth to clinch the school’s first ACC regular season title and top seed in the ACC Tournament since 1990.
“You’ve got to keep playing all of the way through the game, because you just don’t ever know,” Fox said. “The game can turn on a dime. That’s what is unique and frustrating at the same time about baseball. You just don’t ever know.”
The Tar Heels have won five Coastal Division titles since 2006.
UNC and Virginia will play the series’ rubber match on Saturday at 2pm.