Baseball

With championship hopes lost, UNC still searching for spark in ACC baseball tournament

North Carolina’s Ryder Ryan (16) reacts after a scoreless eighth inning against Florida State during the ACC Baseball Championship on Thursday, May 21, 2015 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham.
North Carolina’s Ryder Ryan (16) reacts after a scoreless eighth inning against Florida State during the ACC Baseball Championship on Thursday, May 21, 2015 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham. rwillett@newsobserver.com

In some respects North Carolina dominated and in others it was over-matched and in the end, after an 8-4 loss against Florida State in the ACC baseball tournament on Thursday night, the Tar Heels were left to play a meaningless game on Friday that at the same time carries significant meaning.

It doesn't mean everything, or shouldn't. UNC, according to numbers like the RPI, and according to the number of quality wins it has this season, has likely secured its place in the NCAA tournament. And so the Tar Heels' game against Clemson on Friday doesn't -- or at least shouldn't -- hold those kinds of stakes.

And it doesn't hold any other stakes, really, because the loss on Thursday against Florida State eliminated UNC from contention from the championship game. And so it's a meaningless game, at least in the context of the tournament, but not in any other.

“Tomorrow means a whole lot to us, the way we have to look at it,” UNC coach Mike Fox said on Thursday after the defeat against the Seminoles. “I have no idea about what the (NCAA tournament selection) committee is thinking or any of that. But I think it's very important for us to win our last game before the NCAA tournament.

“If nothing else just to have a win for ourselves and for other people to look at.”

That last part is important, especially, because if the Tar Heels don't win on Friday it will be their third consecutive defeat at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in tournament pool play. And that losing streak would follow the one UNC snapped at the start of this tournament.

The Tar Heels arrived here earlier in the week searching for a spark, some rejuvenation, some life. Searching for anything, really, to get them out of their worst funk in, oh, about 14 years.

That's how long it had been, since 2001, that UNC had lost six consecutive ACC games. Until this season, that is, when the Tar Heels endured a three-game sweep at Notre Dame and then another three-game sweep in the regular season finale at home against Virginia.

Fox called it “embarrassing,” his team's performance and effort in that last loss against Virginia. And at least the effort has been there this week in Durham, where the Tar Heels snapped their six-game conference losing streak on Tuesday with a win against Virginia Tech in a tournament play-in game.

Since then, though, UNC has been over-matched – particularly offensively – by two of the best teams in the league. The Tar Heels couldn't match Louisville's offensive prowess during a 7-4 loss on Wednesday, and it was the same thing against Florida State on Thursday.

At least against Louisville, UNC had scoring chances early and built a 4-0 lead. No such fortune against the Seminoles, who scored the first five runs on Thursday night and then extended their lead to 8-2 before UNC scored twice in the ninth with two outs.

Fox appreciated that, that his team didn't surrender.

“As long as our players are competing just like they did tonight, I mean that's really all I can focus on and beat proud of,” he said.

It was a strange game. UNC's pitching staff, led by starter Trent Thornton, struck out 17 batters, one short of the Florida State school record. And yet the Tar Heels also allowed eight hits and 10 runs and never really appeared to threaten to get back into the game.

Thornton dominated in stretches, especially after settling down after a rough start, and in moments he resembled the dominant pitcher he was as a freshman. Back then, two years ago, he finished the season with a sub-2 ERA and was among the Tar Heels' most feared pitchers.

But he has struggled at times this season – his ERA is 5.04 after Thursday night – and he couldn't say what was different now. In fact he said nothing is different.

“I don't think so,” he said when asked if his mechanics or approach or anything else had changed.

Two years ago, the last time this tournament was in Durham, UNC left as the champion and then went on to play in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. Now it's left to play in one last pool play game that is meaningless yet at the same time so very meaningful.

UNC arrived here earlier in the week hoping to change its recent fortune, hoping to build some kind of momentum. Hoping, maybe most of all, to find some offense. It has one more chance.

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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