CHAPEL HILL There were officially 3,517 people in Boshamer Stadium on Monday night, almost all of whom were still there Tuesday morning.
In a decade, 10 times that many will claim to have been there. In a generation, countless thousands will tell their kids they were there the night North Carolina played the baseball game that wouldn’t end, with the Tar Heels’ season hanging in the balance.
Twice, Florida Atlantic hit what looked, and felt like, game-winning home runs. Twice, North Carolina rallied back. On a night when some strange pitching choices put the Tar Heels in danger, their bats kept saving their season – at one point, by not swinging at all – until the top-seeded Tar Heels averted disaster and moved on to host South Carolina in this weekend’s Super Regional.
Cody Stubbs singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 13th as the Tar Heels won 12-11 and saved North Carolina coach Mike Fox from a lifetime of second-guessing over his decision to turn to tired starters Kent Emanuel and Benton Moss in relief. Those two combined to give up six runs in the top of the ninth inning before the Tar Heels scored two of their own in the bottom half to prolong their season.
They did it again in the 12th, after a three-run homer put the Owls back in the lead, loading the bases with no outs before Stubbs and Michael Russell both drew walks to bring the Tar Heels within a run. Mike Zolk tied it up with an RBI single but Fox sent Stubbs home and he was out at the plate.
It started with a two-hour rain delay and ended well into Tuesday morning, full of twists and turns and pathos and drama, without a doubt the most heart-wrenching college baseball game – forget that, sporting event – played in the state of North Carolina in a long time.
The No. 1 national seed survived, the Tar Heels avoided losing two straight regionals on their home field, South Carolina will visit as planned for this weekend’s Super Regional – and by the time it was over, no one was more relieved than Fox, whose use of Emanuel and Moss seemed odd at the time and catastrophic in retrospect.
Fox used freshman closer Trent Thornton for four scoreless innings Monday – he hasn’t allowed a run in his past 16 1/3 – after starter Chris Munnelly only lasted three, but the Tar Heels were leading 6-2 at that point.
After last year’s debacle, when the Tar Heels lost to St. John’s on Saturday and Sunday on their home field, Fox would take no chances this time around, even if it meant risking the invaluable left arm of Emanuel, the ACC’s pitcher of the year, on short rest. Emanuel had thrown 124 pitches only 48 hours earlier.
The crowd murmured nervously as Emanuel came in for Thornton with two on and nobody out in the eighth. He got the three outs to hold the lead, to applause. But there was vocal concern when Emanuel came out to open the ninth.
Fox stuck with him through a solo homer to Corey Keller but the bases were quickly loaded. When he walked in a run, struggling to throw 85 mph on his 51st pitch, well below his usual velocity, that was finally it. Moss, who pitched Friday, came in to face Tyler Rocklein, who launched a 1-1 pitch far into the parking lot to the left of the left field scoreboard.
But the Tar Heels would come back then, and again in the 12th, and then win it in the 13th on Stubbs’ single. Anyone would saw it will never forget it. And even some who didn’t.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-812-7195
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