The North Carolina bullpen just failed its first test.
In Monday’s 5-4, extra-inning loss to Clemson, UNC starter Hobbs Johnson came out in the sixth inning. A revolving door of relievers came in, and the Tar Heels quickly surrendered a 3-1 lead.
Then the bullpen gave up the winning run in extra innings.
“The inning where we gave them three runs, in a close game like that against a good team, we call that the big inning,” coach Mike Fox said. “Most of the time, if you win the big inning war, you win the game.”
Since the preseason, Fox has wondered which pitcher he could go to in tight games, calling it his $64,000 question. But with North Carolina not playing many close games in its 25-1 start, the question never really came up.
On Monday it did — and the answer wasn’t good.
Fox used seven different relievers, and none pitched especially well. The bullpen turned a 3-1 UNC lead into a tied ball game before it recorded its first out and into a 4-3 deficit before it recorded its second.
And in the late innings, the relievers got themselves into jam after jam — Clemson finally pushed the winning run across on a groundout after loading the bases with no outs in the 11th.
Chris O’Brien, the reliever that loaded the bases, took the loss. He walked the leadoff hitter, then slipped and fell on two consecutive sacrifice bunts, allowing both batters to reach safely.
“What really can you say?” first baseman Cody Stubbs said. “Keep your feet under you, I guess.”
Shane Taylor replaced O’Brien and allowed the RBI groundout, which was charged to O’Brien.
O’Brien put the blame on himself, saying he should have made the plays on the bunts.
“I was a little out of control getting to the ball,” O’Brien said. “Next time I’ve got to make them.”
Still, the bullpen’s worst inning was the sixth.
The No. 1 Tar Heels had a two-run lead until, with one out in the sixth and a man on first, Fox took Johnson out after just 69 pitches.
Johnson hadn’t been at his best, but he had kept Clemson mostly under control. As soon as Fox went to his relievers, though, things went downhill.
Trevor Kelley came in and, after a wild pitch and a walk, got the hook.
Next up was Chris McCue, who gave up back-to-back hits, the second a two-RBI single to Thomas Brittle that tied the game at three. After a strikeout for out number two, he threw a wild pitch to the next hitter, allowing the go-ahead run to score and giving Clemson its first lead of the series.
“We bring (Kelley) out and get a walk, and we don’t tolerate walks too well,” Fox said. “And Chris McCue couldn’t locate his fastball and had to rely on his change. We just kind of kept mixing and matching from there.”
It’s likely that the bullpen will be tested more as the season goes on.
And it’s going to need to get its grades up.
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