Tyler Baum’s 101st pitch may have been even sharper than his first. The fastball whizzed past the bat of Duke’s Erikson Nichols at 94 miles per hour for a strikeout to end the top of the seventh.
Baum hadn’t allowed a run. He’d only given up two hits and a walk while striking out six. But with 13 white LED zeroes lighting up the scoreboard in left field, denoting the 13 futile half frames by North Carolina (20-7, 5-5 ACC) and Duke (14-12, 3-7 ACC), Baum was still needed in the 0-0 game.
“Pitching duel,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said. “Old fashioned pitching duel.”
North Carolina’s Aaron Sabato struck out to start the bottom of the seventh, but the wild pitch got away from Duke catcher Michael Rothenberg and caromed to his left, all the way to the backstop. Known for his bat more than his speed, Sabato took off down the first base line. He easily made it to the bag.
Back in the dugout, Fox didn’t have a moment's pause. It was already the seventh inning, the Tar Heels had two hits in the game, and he needed someone who could fly around the base path. He pinch-ran the fleet footed Dylan Enwiller for the big-hitting Sabato.
After an Ashton McGee single and a Brandon Martorano walk, Fox’s decision looked like it was about to pay off. Dylan Harris stepped up to the plate and knew his job.
“I was trying to swing as hard as I could and hit a pop fly wherever I could,” Harris said. “I didn't have to hit it too deep because Dylan was on third. That kid is fast as lightning.”
Harris hit it hard anyway for good measure, and Enwiller covered the 90 feet to home quickly enough that Blue Devil senior captain Kennie Taylor didn’t even consider winding up for a throw to the plate from center field. Michael Busch popped out to Rothenburg to end the inning, and Baum returned to pitch the eighth with the one thing he hadn’t been able to give to the team: a lead to defend.
A first pitch line out to center put Baum at 7.1 innings pitched, a new career high. Three more pitches resulted in a fly out to foul territory in right. Another three pitches got a groundout to second to end the Blue Devils' half of the inning.
The Tar Heels ended their own half of the inning quickly and quietly.
Out trotted Baum for the ninth, having already thrown 108 pitches.
Two pitches got him a fly out to center. Another two got him a fly out to deep right that had the crowd holding its breath. Baum was still touching 95 mph on his fastball.
Then, three straight balls.
“You have to take the emotion out of it and use your head, not your heart,” Fox said. “Your heart wants him to finish, certainly, to throw a complete game shutout.”
His coach urged him under his breath.
“Throw a strike, throw a strike,” Fox recounted saying.
“I knew,” Baum said. “Luca (Dalatri), his freshman year went eight and two thirds, got a guy on, and ended up getting pulled. So I knew if I walked a guy, a guy got a hit, that was it for me.”
Fox walked to the mound as Austin Love ran in from the bullpen. Baum finished with 8.2 innings, six strikeouts, two hits and two walks on 116 pitches. The crowd rose and showed their thanks to Baum for a job well done. The North Carolina team filed out of the dugout to welcome him back.
“When I saw Luca, I joked with him,” Baum said. “Eight and two-thirds is a curse. No one can finish it out.”
Love gave the pitching gem a fitting ending. He threw three pitches, the third a swinging strikeout blow, to end the game.
Baum got the win to move to 5-2 on the season. Just an out shy of a complete game shutout, the junior righty was lauded by his teammates.
But Harris, midway through discussing Baum’s outing, was interrupted by the creak of a door opening behind him as Baum walked into the room. Harris quickly changed his praising tone.
“I mean, I guess he had an alright game,” Harris said with a smile.
They wrapped up their interviews and went to celebrate the 1-0 win on a night where Baum never seemed to fade.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.