Ernie Banks had a famous saying: "Let's play two." With a shot at an ACC title on the line, N.C. State and North Carolina played two in one in a game that started Saturday night and spilled into Sunday at the Durham Bulls Athletics Park. A bloop hit by Cody Stubbs ultimately decided the game in the 18th, as the Tarheels outlasted the Pack for the right to take on Virginia Tech Sunday for the ACC championship.
With runners on the corners and one out, Stubbs was sawed off by a Will Gilbert fastball but Pack shortstop Trea Turner seemed to run from the dying quail as if it was live munitions. Turner turned over his left shoulder even though the ball was hit over his right shoulder, overran it, and made a fruitless attempt to dive at the blooper as it landed in short left field to plate the game winning run.
N.C. State (44-14) had a chance to tie it in the bottom half of the 18th after Brett Williams led off the frame with a double and advanced to third on a wild pitch, but North Carolina (51-8) wriggled out of the jam behind reliever Chris Munnelly, who got Bryan Adametz and Sam Morgan on harmless popups before Logan Ratledge rolled a grounder to ACC player of the year Colin Moran at third, who threw to first to end it after over six hours of baseball.
The Pack's failure to cash in on opportunities was a theme for the evening. They left 17 men on base, including five at third. They struck out 21 times.
Led by a stellar but wasted effort from Carlos Rodon, the Pack staff did the Heels one better in the strikeout department, fanning 22 for the game. Rodon went 10 innings and gave up just one hit and one unearned run. He struck out 14 to set the single-season program record for strikeouts (151). He deserved a better fate.
Rodon didn't allow a hit until a Cody Stubbs' two-out single in the seventh, but the eighth is when the Heels finally broke through, scoring their lone run in regulation without the benefit of a hit. Rodon lost Mike Zolk on a borderline 3-2 pitch with one out and Zolk moved up 90 feet on a wild pitch (that really should have been ruled a passed ball). Parks Jordan followed with a routine grounder to third but Grant Clyde kicked it for his second error of the game. Clyde did keep the ball in front of him, forcing Zolk to hold at second base.
Then things got even uglier. To his credit, Chaz Frank fouled off a couple of unhittable two-strike pitches before managing to put a routine grounder into play. Tarran Senay gloved the roller at first base and feigned a throw to second before deciding to take the sure out at first. Rodon saw the arm motion to second and turned his head towards Trea Turner in expectation of a throw to first for a possible double play. Of course Turner didn't have the ball. Senay had it. His flip to the pitcher covering was right on target; in fact, if a surprised Rodon hadn't ducked it might have hit him right in the face. Instead, the ball trickled over to the first base dugout and Zolk scampered home to knot the score at 1-1.
Rodon did stop the bleeding there, fanning Landon Lassiter for the fourth of the freshman DH's five Ks and getting Moran to bounce out to Clyde to end the frame.
Clyde looked like he would play the hero after he followed Senay's double with one of his own to put the Pack up 1-0 and chase Heels' starter Hobbs Johnson in the bottom of the sixth. But two errors later and a strikeout with the bases loaded and one out in the 13th turned the senior from hero to goat.
Of course there were plenty of goats to go around. Turner struck out three times, including a one-out, bases-load whiff in the fifth. Jake Fincher made a couple of diving catches in right field but followed Turner's strikeout by taking a called third strike to end one of the Pack's best threats of the game. Table setters Turner and Fincher, the one-two batters in the order, both went just 1-for-7 for the game.
Though he did not figure in the decision, UNC's Tyler Thornton was instrumental in the win. He tossed six and 2/3 no-hit innings out of the pen. Grant Sasser had two and 2/3 clutch bullpen innings for the Pack, striking out Moran (who went 0-for-7) and Skye Bolt on sneaky inside fastballs to keep the Pack in winning position. D.J. Thomas also excelled in extra innings, throwing three and 2/3 innings of shutout baseball.
Chris Overman was saddled with the loss for the Pack. Overman opened the 18th with a walk to Lassiter and then hit Moran before being pulled in favor of Gilbert, who had worked just five and 2/3 innings all season. The inherited runner Gilbert allowed to score was the first earned run charged to Overman all season and the loss was also his first setback of his senior campaign.
An ACC record crowd of 11,342 witnessed the 18-inning affair, which was the longest game in ACC tournament history. The Heels, who needed 14 innings to dispatch of Clemson the night before, will play for the conference crown less than 12 hours after concluding pool play with the Pack. The final airs on ESPN2 at 1 p.m.
N.C. State will find out its fate Monday when the NCAA selection show airs at noon on ESPNU. The Pack, certain to at least host a regional, will find out if they have done enough to earn a national seed for baseball's big dance.