UNC baseball's last rally falls short against Davidson
One day, maybe, North Carolina baseball head coach Mike Fox will be able to clear his mind and reflect on what his team accomplished in 2017.
The 49 wins, the 10 ACC series wins in as many tries, the ACC Coastal Division title and the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament — all of which helped return UNC to the forefront of the college baseball national scene for the first time since 2013 — brought him joy.
And it wasn’t just the accomplishments themselves. It was the players, too. But on June 4, the sudden reality that the season was over hit Fox like a load of bricks.
“The end of the season, it’s miserable,” he said. “The last day of the season is the worst part of coaching.”
Many thought that final day would come in Omaha, Neb — a place where other great Tar Heel teams, which this year’s squad mirrored in many ways, have gone six times under Fox.
Instead, UNC lost to postseason Cinderella Davidson, a No. 4 seed that had to win last week’s Atlantic 10 tournament to even make the 64-team field, for the second time in three days. This time, in one of the most excruciating ways possible — a 2-1 loss.
Trailing by a run and down to their final two outs, the Tar Heels looked like they were going to tie the game when Zack Gahagan singled to right field.
Brandon Riley, UNC’s best offensive player in the Chapel Hill Regional, had no doubt in his mind: he was going to go from second to home, and the Tar Heels’ late-inning magic would continue.
Only this time, it wasn’t meant to be.
In a finish Davidson head coach Dick Cooke said nobody would ever forget, Riley narrowly avoided the initial tag from Wildcat catcher Jake Sidwell, but slid past home plate and couldn’t get to the plate before Sidwell got to him.
Riley’s sudden outburst and display of emotion at the close call told the story. UNC had been on the right side of these momentum plays all season, but not this time. One at-bat later, another bang-bang call at first base officially closed the books on a North Carolina season that wasn’t supposed to end this early.
For three months, the Tar Heels were among the handful of elite teams teams in the country. They earned that spot and reputation because of their work over a 58-game sample size. Four games later, they have no more games to show up for, just like most teams in the country, come June.
After having one of the most productive offenses in the country for much of the year, UNC’s downfall was its inability to do anything against Davidson’s pitching staff, which helped the Wildcats advance to the super regional round of the tournament in a way as improbable as UNC’s exit was unexpected.
“I’m just surprised,” UNC center fielder Brian Miller said. “It’s disappointing for all the work we put in, for how much everyone on our offense cares. So disappointing for sure.”
When the MLB Draft rolls around in about a week’s time, Miller, star pitcher J.B. Bukauskas and shortstop Logan Warmoth — all juniors — are expected to be selected early on, in positions where the monetary rewards are so large, the decision to turn professional becomes a no-brainer.
For that reason — the reality that UNC was truly one of the most talented teams in the nation — the Tar Heels’ season could seem like a missed opportunity.
Those core players missed the postseason in their first two seasons in Chapel Hill, but this year was supposed to be different.
In the days leading up to the Chapel Hill Regional, they said as much, talking about their journey from being absentees in 2015 and 2016 to a national seed that brought back postseason baseball to Boshamer Stadium for the first time in four years.
In addition to the pure talent, there were leaders like Adam Pate, a senior who served as a guide of sorts for many on a young Tar Heel team, despite his on-the-field struggles.
Before the season started, he addressed his teammates and challenged them to come together as a unit and be the group that got UNC playing up to the program’s standard again. Sunday’s loss was an unfortunate end in that journey.
“You don’t expect it to end like this,” Pate said. “You hope it’s in Omaha, but there’s so many things that you can’t describe that go on in that locker room, that going on in this program that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
The loss will undoubtedly leave a sour taste in the mouth of Fox, who just completed his 19th season in charge of UNC. Not only because of what it means, but also because of the way it ended.
Even if it had been missing for much of Sunday night, the feeling that UNC had another rally in itself returned in the ninth. This was how series against the likes of Florida State, Clemson, N.C. State and Duke were won.
But in a cruel fashion, UNC was reminded that baseball is indeed a game of small margins and it can still stun those who have been around the game for many years.
“That’s kind of what I expected,” Fox said of his team’s comeback attempt. “And it obviously makes it that much harder to swallow.”