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The Daily Tar Heel

Missed opportunities plague Diamond Heels' loss to Wake Forest in ACC tournament

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UNC junior left-handed pitcher Shea Sprague (28) pitches the ball during the ACC tournament game against Wake Forest at Truist Field on Friday, May 24, 2024. UNC lost 9-5 in the 12th inning.

CHARLOTTE — First-year third baseman Gavin Gallaher walked to the plate with a chance to win the game. 

He eyed down Wake Forest pitcher Ben Shenosky, raked himself a place in the batter’s box with his cleats and tapped his bat three times, one with his right hand and two with his left. The moment was set for celebration.

After an intentional walk to senior designated hitter Jackson Van De Brake, the bases were juiced with the game tied at five in the bottom of the 11th frame. The Tar Heels were just 90-feet away from the ACC tournament semifinals and had two outs to play with. 

But North Carolina never closed that distance.

Gallaher hit a grounder to the shortstop who fired home to prevent the winning run from scoring. The next batter, senior shortstop Colby Wilkerson, found a similar disappointment and the game was on to the twelfth.

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UNC senior infielder Colby Wilkerson (3) waits to bat during the ACC tournament game against Wake Forest at Truist Field on Friday, May 24, 2024. UNC lost 9-5 in the 12th inning.

Sparked by a 408 foot, two-run bomb from Wake Forest's Nick Kurtz, the Deacons seized the lead and never looked back.

In No. 1-seeded North Carolina’s 9-5 loss to No. 8-seeded Wake Forest on Friday, the Tar Heels were left with what could have been. From small ball mistakes throughout the game to stranding 17 runners on base, UNC squandered too many opportunities to come out on top in a game where ACC Pitcher of the Year Chase Burns dealt six scoreless innings with 15 strikeouts.

“These guys are going to play until that last out is made,” head coach Scott Forbes said. “Unfortunately, we ran out of outs and we were behind.”

In March, UNC handed Burns his first and only loss of the season. Burns struck out 14, but UNC powered its way to six runs through the long ball, hitting four home runs off the projected first-rounder.  

But on Friday, the Tar Heels struggled to string hits together. They had to manufacture runs, making the missed chances all the more costly. 

After leaving the bases loaded in the second inning, the Tar Heels looked to have another runner in scoring position in the sixth. With no runs on the scoreboard, graduate right fielder Anthony Donofrio roped a double down the left field line. The throw into second got away and Donofrio instantly got up from his slide and dashed to third. Even after the miscue, the Deacons collected the ball and threw it to third.

Donofrio failed to meet the bag in time. One out. Bases empty.

In the following frame, a two-run shot by Wake Forest's Cameron Gill pushed the score to 4-0.

"I'm going to remind the guys, the aggressiveness and going after it doesn't need to change,” Forbes said. “That's how you win a championship. But you also have to use your head a little bit and make some smarter decisions, and we'll work on that.”

Still, the Tar Heels worked to complete the comeback and tie the game up at 4-4.

A single from senior first baseman Parks Harber in the bottom of the eighth put UNC on top for the first time. As senior pitcher Matt Poston took the mound in the ninth, the game was in his hands. 

One more strike was all that Poston needed.

With a lone runner on first, Poston battled with Kurtz. The count stood at 3-2 with two outs already secured. But Kurtz wanted to play a little longer. He found barrel and muscled a double to the base of the wall in right center field. 

Tied game. Another opportunity gone.

Then came extra innings and Kurtz's game-defining home run. Time and time again the Tar Heels failed to hold onto the lead until the finish. And as UNC looks to make a deep run into the NCAA tournament for its first visit to the College World Series since 2018, Forbes recognizes that these mistakes cannot continue. 

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While the Tar Heels have the promise of playing another game in NCAA regionals next week, if these missed opportunities continue, the consequences can be fatal.

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UNC baseball head coach Scott Forbes returns to the dugout during the ACC tournament game against Wake Forest at Truist Field on Friday, May 24, 2024. UNC lost 9-5 in the 12th inning.

Although the loss stings for now, Forbes hopes the memory of this game can be a lesson for his team and a possible solvent.

“Sometimes when things happen, it can set you up for future success hopefully,” Forbes said. “Because you're going to be back in that same situation and you can't win a title without beating a really good team.”

@brendan_lunga18

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