North Carolina beats FAU in the best baseball game all year you didn’t see
We don’t typically cover college baseball here, but Monday night’s double-elimination game between North Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and Florida Atlantic deserves special mention. The two teams were playing the final game of the double-elimination regional round to determine which of the two teams would advance into the eight-team Super Regionals, and the game that unfolded after a two-hour rain delay in Chapel Hill was a classic, 13-inning see-saw battle that stretched past 1:30 a.m.
The lead exchanged hands a few times in the early innings. The Tar Heels, whose star-studded lineup includes third baseman Colin Moran, a likely top-10 pick in Thursday’s Rule 4 draft, scored first but the Owls led 2-1 going into the bottom of the second, where Carolina tied it before taking a 4-2 lead in the third. The Heels stretched their advantage to 6-2 entering the top of the ninth. Three outs from victory, UNC head coach Mike Fox turned to his ace, junior lefty Kent Emanuel, a potential early-round pick on Thursday, who had started Saturday’s game against Towson and thrown 124 pitches across 7 2/3 innings.
Emanuel stranded both runners in the eighth, but things got away from him in the ninth. After a leadoff homer made it 6-3, he loaded the bases on a single and two walks and got a strikeout for the second out but then walked in another run to make it 6-4. By that point, Emanuel had thrown 51 pitches on just one day of rest, so Fox went to righty Benton Moss to face FAU righty Tyler Rocklein needing just one more out to advance. Instead, Rocklein hit Moss’s 2-1 offering over the leftfield fence for a grand slam to give FAU an 8-6 lead.
Carolina entered the tournament with the nation’s best record and had not lost back-to-back games all season, but after losing 3-2 to FAU on Sunday, the Tar Heels were suddenly three outs from elimination. Somehow, Carolina shook off the body blow of Rocklein’s grand slam to tie the game via a double, a single, a stolen base and a two-RBI single by sophomore second baseman Mike Zolk, but left two runners on and the game headed to extra innings.
The game remained tied at 8-8 until the top of the 12th, when the Owls’ junior catcher, Levi Meyer, smoked a three-run homer to make it 11-8.
For the second time, FAU was three outs from advancing, and for the second time, North Carolina came back to tie almost immediately. The first three batters in the bottom of the 12th loaded the bases on a single, a walk and a single, after which two different Florida Atlantic pitchers walked in a run to make it 11-10. Then, for the second time in four innings, Zolk singled home the tying run. Fox, who is his own third base coach, sent Cody Stubbs to the plate on the hit, but Owls leftfielder Geoff Jimenez threw Stubbs out to keep FAU’s season alive. Carolina, as it had done in the 11th, left two runners on in the 12th and the game moved to the 13th.
The Owls got a one-out double but stranded runners at the corners in the top of the 13th and the Tar Heels once again loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning. That brought up Stubbs, a senior first baseman. Stubbs took a 1-2 fastball away and sent it down the leftfield line to drive in the winning run and send the Tar Heels to the Super Regionals with a 12-11 victory.
Here, courtesy of GoHeels.com, UNC’s official athletic site, are North Carolina’s highlights (which, sadly, omit that ninth-inning grand slam by Rocklein):
It wasn’t the prettiest ballgame—FAU gave up 34 baserunners via 21 hits, 11 walks and a pair of hit batsmen—but then neither were some of the great postseason games in major league history. (Everybody remembers David Freese’s heroics in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series; few remember that he dropped a routine pop up in that game). A good comparison might be Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series. That game between the Mets and the Astros, like this one between the Tar Heels and Owls, featured five lead changes from the ninth inning on, and that Mets-Astros game only had one team, the Astros, facing elimination. That sort of insanity may not be more common in college baseball, but it led to a game that may have overshadowed all nine of the games played around the majors last night and was one that won’t soon be forgotten.