In Sunday’s postgame press conference, UNC baseball head coach Scott Forbes inadvertently summed up North Carolina’s season-ending loss in just three words.
“Unexpected things happen."
Forbes wasn’t referring to UNC’s 4-3 walk-off defeat at the hands of Arkansas in the NCAA Super Regionals, but rather a shocking turn of events for North Carolina third baseman Mac Horvath. On Saturday night, Horvath underwent an emergency appendectomy, forcing the starter out of the lineup for Sunday’s matchup.
The first game the sophomore missed all season could not have unfolded in a more unexpected fashion.
After eight innings and two weather delays, the game remained tied at 2-2. However, heading into the final frame, the Tar Heels found themselves on the brink of victory thanks to an unlikely hero.
With his fifth hit of the season and first hit since February, sophomore Patrick Alvarez drove in Tomas Frick to take the lead, 3-2.
Frick stomped on home plate and punched the air as Tar Heels lept over the dugout fence and poured onto the grass behind him. Alvarez, standing triumphantly on first, kicked his leg up in excitement.
"That was really cool, and you feel like we're going to win that game when that happens," Forbes said. "So that was a big downer."
By the very next frame, Alvarez lay on the ground in defeat. Arkansas senior Brady Slavens’ single slipped by the second baseman's extended glove and into the outfield to score the game-winning run.
Barely two innings removed from one of his most important catches of the season, first-year center fielder Vance Honeycutt walked over to right field to console redshirt junior Angel Zarate. As the Razorbacks paraded around the shallow outfield, hoisting “Omahogs” signs, Honeycutt crouched down to wrap his arm around the shoulders of his teammate.
The first-year made a diving grab in the seventh inning to strand a Razorback in scoring position and keep the game tied. When asked about the play after the game, Honeycutt could barely muster the words to describe it. It didn’t matter in the end.
“I think it was Slavens, (he) just caught a piece of it and it was just up in the air for a little bit too long,” Honeycutt said. “I thought being able to hold them was important and then we scratched one. At the end of the day, they got us in the ninth.”
And what a shock the bottom of the ninth inning was to the Tar Heels.
After first-year Peyton Stovall crossed the plate to punch Arkansas’ ticket to Omaha, seemingly every North Carolina player remained frozen on the field. They either stood still or dropped into a squat, refusing to move from the spots in which they watched their season end.
Left-handed pitcher Caden O’Brien, who was brought to the mound in the game’s final frame, was one of the first Tar Heels to break the stillness. Trudging across the field, he let out several angry yells before walking into the dugout.
Who would’ve thought the senior would only throw one pitch before giving up the walk-off hit? Who could’ve predicted that UNC’s lights-out closer Davis Palermo would allow two back-to-back singles and a walk to load the bases just moments before this?
It was an uncharacteristic performance for the North Carolina bullpen. It was simply unexpected.
And at the end of everything, after the Tar Heels cleared the field and Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn was drenched in Powerade, Serretti wandered out to the edge of the infield.
He bent over and picked up a few handfuls of dirt behind the shortstop position he occupied for the past four years. He placed the mixture inside a cup before walking off of Bryson Field for likely the final time.
It was a gift for his mom — one that she'll be receiving sooner than he thought.
In spite of the season's unexpected ending, UNC's unprecedented run to get to the Super Regionals is the exact reason why veterans like Serretti and Zarate returned to North Carolina at the end of last season. It's why, despite the heartbreaking loss, the Tar Heels are still grateful for moments like Sunday's game.
“Me and Angel (Zarate) came back for a run like this," Serretti said. "It's been all I could ask for. It didn’t end the way we wanted to but I had so much fun. The bond that I’ve made with all these guys is something that won't be broken."