“That might have been the greatest baseball game I’ve ever been a part of.”
Those are the words of UNC head baseball coach Mike Fox, a 30-year veteran with nearly 1,650 games under his belt. Coachspeak is rampant with hyperbole, but every so often, that type of outlandish claim is based in reality.
What transpired on Monday undoubtedly fits that description. North Carolina collapsed in the ninth inning only to rally and rally again in improbable fashion to outlast a gritty Florida Atlantic squad, 12-11, in 13 innings.
The Tar Heels were efficient in building a four-run lead, scoring in five different innings to offset Corey Keller’s two-run blast over the left field wall in the second inning. The game was routine up until the ninth inning, as reporters had their game stories ready to file and fans were in the early stages of celebrating a return trip to the Super Regionals.
Fox is responsible for changing the entire trajectory with his decision to replace closer Trent Thornton with ace Kent Emanuel, who threw 124 pitches 48 hours earlier. While the Woodstock, Ga. product retired all three batters he faced in the eighth to escape a two-on, no-out jam, his ninth inning prompted harsh criticism on social media aimed in Fox’s direction.
Emanuel gave up a solo dinger to left-center to open the top of the inning and walked three batters, including five-pitch walk to score FAU’s fourth run.
With the bases loaded with two outs, and North Carolina one out away from victory, Fox again refused to trust a bullpen that only allowed one earned run in 25.1 innings a week earlier at the ACC Tournament, this time calling Benton Moss’s number.
The sophomore’s fourth pitch to Tyler Rocklein flew 385 feet, easily clearing the left-centerfield wall for a grand slam to give FAU an 8-6 lead.
Add in a Hobbs Johnson appearance - who started on Sunday - four innings later and UNC managed to work its entire weekend rotation along with its No. 1 weekday starter into Monday’s ball game.
“We feel like we owe it to our team to put the best guys out there to try and win the most important game of our season and try to advance,” Fox said in explaining his decision. “All these guys come to us saying I’ve got an inning or I’ve got a hitter. That’s what some of them got. They’re competitors. They want to go out there. I’ll stand by our reputation. I don’t think we put any of them at risk.”
The game, however, should have never gotten to that point. On what appeared to be a routine double-play ball at second base, Ricky Santiago appeared to run out of the base path onto the infield grass to dodge Mike Zolk’s tag. Both runners were called safe, despite a lengthy discussion between Fox and second base umpire Mark Uyl.
North Carolina, facing its final three outs of the season, responded with a pair of hits to open the bottom of the ninth. Zolk tied the game with a single through the right side.
What followed was an ever-increasing amount of manic drama. There were more botched calls, there were more questionable decisions and an Owl even bunted himself out.
There was Levi Meyer’s three-run homerun in the top of the 12th to give FAU a 11-8 lead, which was matched by a pair of RBI courtesy of walks and another Zolk RBI single in the bottom half of the inning.
The worst call of the night occurred when Chaz Frank was thrown out at first to open the 13th despite stepping on the bag well before the ball ever arrived.
The Tar Heels hadn’t lost back-to-back games all season, though, and had endured a pair of extra-inning games in Durham last weekend.
“Sometimes it doesn’t really matter about physical attributes,” reliever Chris McCue said. “I think it’s more mentality. I think this game is probably 75-80 percent mentality and if you have the right mentality of not being afraid to lose, I think nine times out of 10 you’re going to be successful.”
Following Frank’s ground out, Landon Lassiter singled to right field. Colin Moran walked. Brian Holberton took a 1-1 pitch to the body. With the bases loaded and one out, Cody Stubbs stepped into the batter’s box.
“I was going to get the job done no matter what,” Stubbs said. “I was mad at myself. I chased a couple of bad pitches, but there’s 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.’”
He did just that, roping a game-winning single into left field. Game over.
Maybe it’s fitting that it took a two-hour rain delay and four extra innings to push the Chapel Hill Regional finale into the early morning hours of June 4. That date’s relevance is not lost on Fox or the UNC program as it marks the day his mother, Barbara, died in 2011 after a second bout with cancer.
Fox missed the 2011 Chapel Hill Regional to mourn his mother’s passing, but returned to guide UNC to its fifth College World Series in six years. That bittersweet anniversary will now include a notable asterisk detailing arguably the greatest game her son was ever a part of.