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DeCock: Tar Heels benefit from bonus baseball

Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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CHAPEL HILL Who knows how much North Carolina has in the tank at this point, after all the extra baseball the Tar Heels have played and all the drama they have endured. If Saturday is any indication, they have just enough grit and heart left, if not much else.

After Kent Emanuel’s tired arm put the Tar Heels in an early hole, the Tar Heels clawed their way out. After falling behind early, after losing the lead in the eighth, when extra innings loomed, struggling freshman Skye Bolt delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth to give North Carolina a 6-5 win over South Carolina in a mere nine innings, instead of the 13 or 14 or 18 it has often taken lately.

“More than anything, it’s irritated us,” Bolt said. “It’s something we don’t want to continue, to put ourselves in such situations. We know we can do it, but who wants to play 14 innings when you can play nine and get the victory? It’s something you could sense in the dugout, that we wanted to get it done.”

The Tar Heels are one win from the College World Series after opening this Super Regional series with a win. But to make sure North Carolina won its regional last weekend, Tar Heels coach Mike Fox was willing to win at any cost, bringing in Emanuel in relief on Monday only two days after he started Friday’s game. The bill came due Saturday when Emanuel gave up four runs in less than three innings. He battled, he fought, but he was running on empty after throwing 238 pitches over 11 2/3 innings in eight days.

In that respect, he wasn’t alone. Over the past 2 1/2 weeks, the Tar Heels have played 18 extra innings. With the scored tied going into the bottom of the ninth, they wanted to end it in regulation almost as badly as they wanted the win.

While all the extra baseball may have left the Tar Heels fatigued, it has also left them battle-hardened. Game hanging in the balance in the bottom of the ninth? That’s nothing compared to being three runs down facing elimination in the ninth, or two runs down facing elimination in the 12th, or going 18 innings with N.C. State, or any of the strenuous scenarios North Carolina has survived lately.

It showed with Bolt, 14-for-60 going into Saturday since coming back from the broken right foot that knocked him out for 17 games, who had a pair of late singles, scoring in the sixth and driving in the winning run in the ninth.

It showed with Parks Jordan, pressed into regular action in left field when catcher Matt Russell broke his thumb and Brian Holberton moved behind the plate. Jordan was 0-for-3 on Saturday but led off the ninth with a single and scored the winning run from second.

It showed with the bullpen, asked to shoulder a tremendous load after Emanuel’s early exit. Chris Munnelly, Tate Parrish and Chris McCue combined for 3 2/3 scoreless innings before turning things over to freshman closer Trent Thornton, who gave up one run in three innings to get the win.

The Tar Heels have yet to make things easy on themselves in this postseason. Even their most routine wins have been fraught with drama, from freshman Taylore Cherry’s unexpected start against Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game to the surprisingly narrow win over Canisius to open the NCAA tournament.

“I’m holding up fine. My wife’s a pharmacist,” Fox joked. “I’m kidding. Sort of.”

Yet they keep winning, occasionally even in only nine innings, sometimes even before it comes down to their final at-bat.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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