Luke DeCock

Facing elimination, Tar Heels, and their right fielder, land on their feet

With North Carolina’s season very much up in the air Sunday, having lost Saturday’s super regional opener to Auburn, Dallas Tessar found himself just as much up in the air in the third inning, having caught a fly ball on a dead run in right field only to run out of foul territory in a big hurry.

After an acrobatic flip over the waist-high wall surrounding the visiting bullpen, Tessar stole an out and the Tar Heels were on their way to perhaps not stealing a win, but maybe getting away with one.

A day after pitching and defense let the Tar Heels down, they could hardly have been much better in those areas Sunday, turning two first-inning runs into a 2-0 win over the Tigers to force a deciding third game Monday with a trip to the College World Series on the line.

Nothing epitomized that turnaround more than Tessar’s roundoff vault over the wall. He even stuck the landing.

Tessar caught the ball in foul territory on a dead run, arms extended, just as his body crossed the first-base line. At that point in the Boshamer outfield, there’s about a foot of grass and 10 feet of warning track before the padded wall that surrounds the visiting bullpen.

By the time he closed his glove around the ball, Tessar had shortened his strides in an attempt to stop, but was already out of runway. Sliding on the sticky, rubberized warning track was out of the question, even if there had been room, and there wasn’t. After one more set of stuttering steps took him to the base of the wall, still with a ton of forward momentum, he was down to two unappealing choices: place his faith in the padding or try to use the wall as leverage to launch himself over it.

He decided to take to the air.

“Honestly, I think that was the safest option, to be totally honest with you, when I hit the wall, just kind of somersault over it rather than try to stop,” Tessar said. “Because when you stop, your body kind of tenses up a little bit. That was the safest decision.”

It didn’t look very safe.

Tessar’s hips caught the top of the wall as his feet left the ground and the collision acted as a fulcrum to launch his legs over his head. He was completely inverted at one point, feet high in the air as his glove hand clung to the top of the wall. After seeming to hang there, his legs flipped all the way over and he stuck the landing, popping up from a crouch with the ball still safely in his glove.

In the dugout, North Carolina coach Mike Fox had one thought: “Just come up with the ball.”

“I thought he caught it,” Fox said. “I just wanted to make sure that was an out. It was a terrific play. He’s made some really good ones for us.”

On the mound, starter Austin Bergner raised his cap in salute.

“I was impressed,” third baseman Ike Freeman said. “He does stuff like that all the time. He’s very athletic. It’s very useful.”

It was quite a turnaround from Saturday, when the Tar Heels’ defense and bullpen let them down in equal measure. Tessar let a double get over his head in the eighth in that game to start the Tigers’ nine-run rally; Sunday, his gymnastic leap over the wall was one aspect of an otherwise flawless performance in the field, with Austin Love coming out of the bullpen to combine with Bergman for a six-hit shutout and save all the other arms for Monday’s climactic game.

And the Tar Heels needed all of it on a day when they scored two in the first inning and left the next 14 runners on base. This hasn’t been the best defensive team in program history, but it did what it needed to do Sunday.

“Defense is kind of our make or break,” Tessar said. “If we play bad defense, it puts us in a tough spot to win. If we play good defense and pitch well we can rely on our bats to carry us through. We played a lot better on defense today and it put us in a better spot to win.”

Sunday, it put the Tar Heels one win from a return to Omaha.

“I was just happy to catch it,” Tessar said. “And obviously happy to not get hurt doing it.”

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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