Entering Wednesday's pool play opener, the Tar Heels had played 43 innings of baseball in just under a week against some very stiff competition in Miami and N.C. State.
Things didn't get any easier as UNC's first two ACC Tournament opponents were top-5 RPI stalwarts FSU and Virginia (ranked No.1 in the coaches poll). Despite their tough opposition, head coach Mike Fox believed his team was up for the challenge.
"This is what we're supposed to be doing this time of year," Fox said. "These guys don't have anything else to do. This is what we practice for, what we go all year for. This is the fun time of year. They've got plenty of time to rest; we just need to keep competing. You've just got to enjoy it."
On Tuesday, the Tar Heels picked up a critical victory over N.C. State - particularly for their NCAA Tournament chances - that advanced them into the pool play stage of conference tournament. The only downside of the win over the Wolfpack was that UNC was forced to use five pitchers, including closer Reilly Hovis (as a starter) and Friday night ace Trenton Thornton (who closed the game).
With the bullpen in need of some rest, it didn't help that the Tar Heels were opposing a Florida State team that has one of the deepest lineups in the country. On Wednesday, the Seminoles' offense was as potent as ever as their hitters combined for seven runs on nine hits en route to a dominating 7-1 victory.
The good news for Fox was that starter Taylore Cherry did a solid job of eating up innings. The big right-hander tossed 98 pitches and was able to get through 5.1 innings. Between Cherry and relievers Henry Sisson and A.J. Bogucki, the coaching staff was able to avoid using any key bullpen contributors.
"We did need to rest our bullpen," Fox said. "They've been taxed a little bit. Hopefully the rest will help these guys and we will be fresh for our next couple of games."
With the loss and the pool play tiebreaker system in place, it is possible that UNC could be out of title contention as early as Friday afternoon. Florida State now holds the head-to-head advantage over the Heels, and if three teams share the same record by the end of Saturday, then the team with the highest winning percentage in the ACC regular season advances to the championship game on Sunday.
Although a lot needs to happen for UNC to be able to defend last season's ACC title, there have been positives in recent weeks. The victory over N.C. State was a step in the right direction towards solidifying an NCAA tournament berth.
It appears as though UNC is currently on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but a win over Virginia or Maryland would seemingly all but lock up a postseason bid.
In addition, the fact that a tired bullpen was able to catch its breath should give fans one more reason to be optimistic. A day off on Thursday should allow the Tar Heels time to recharge as they get ready for two games in a 24-hour span on Friday and Saturday.
Fox confirmed after the game that Benton Moss will start against the Cavaliers, while Zac Gallen will get the nod against the Terrapins.