By Turner Walston
Carolina baseball needs wins. Entering Sunday, the Tar Heels were 29-21 and 13-13 in conference, trying to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Having dropped the first two in the series against Florida State, Sunday’s game was nearly a must-win.
Early Sunday, the Tar Heels did something they hadn’t all weekend: scored in the first inning. They’d had base runners in the first frame Friday and Saturday with nothing to show for it, but Sunday was different. Michael Russell led off with a walk. A sacrifice bunt by Parks Jordan and a throwing error moved Russell to third before Landon Lassiter brought him in. In the second, Tom Zengel drove in Alex Raburn from first, and then Korey Dunbar’s bloop single plated Zengel. Jordan struck again in the fourth, bringing in Adam Pate on a hit straight up the middle to stake the Tar Heels to a 4-0 lead.
All that was fine, but Florida State did not get to be one of the nation’s finest college baseball programs by backing down from a challenge. The Seminoles rarely make mistakes, and they certainly capitalize on mistakes made by their opponents. Tar Heel freshman Zac Gallen gave the home team a nice start, settling in after a shaky first and eventually going 4.2, but he ran into trouble in the fifth. The Seminoles had three singles and a run in the fifth, and Gallen ceded the mound to Reilly Hovis. A single and a fielding error allowed the visitors to score two more to pull to with in a run before Hovis struck out D.J. Stewart to end the inning.
In the sixth, Hovis hit Hank Truluck. He stole second and then reached third on a groundout. A wild pitch later, the game was tied. Hovis had thrown just five pitches in two weeks, so he struggled with his command early in his outing. “My arm felt a little dead, so I just had to work with it, work through it,” he said.
Saturday, Carolina led 2-1 in the fourth before surrendering the game’s final nine runs. Sunday, they rose to the challenge. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, freshman right fielder Tyler Ramirez strode to the plate. Jordan had reached third after an infield single, and Landon Lassiter was on first. Ramirez watched three straight balls go by. “At that point, I was thinking he was trying to pitch around me a little bit to get to Alex (Raburn) there,” Ramirez said. Smith ran the count full and then Ramirez fouled off a couple of pitches to extend the at-bat. “He just kept coming at me with sliders, and then he finally hung one there, and I just put a good swing on it.” That good swing resulted in the go-ahead run scoring, as the ball shot over Truluck’s glove at second base. “I thought he was going to come back with a fastball, try and sneak it by me,” Ramirez said, “but he threw another slider and this one was just up unlike the other ones he threw it up and in and I just hit it through the hole.”
“They had two-strike, two-out hit us to death,” Mike Fox said of the Seminoles. “We just needed one. ‘Just give us one,’ that’s what I’m thinking. ‘Just give us one.’ We got it.”
The Tar Heels didn’t panic when Florida State tied the score. They stayed with the process, trusted themselves and were able to get back the lead. “We knew we only need to score one more because Reilly’s been unbelievable all year,” said Zengel. “So we knew if we scratched a run away, he was probably going to hold them, and we were probably going to win the game because of that.”
Sufficiently settled, and now with a lead, Hovis allowed a hit each in the eighth and ninth but nothing more. His strikeout of Danny De La Calle on a high fastball sealed the win for the Tar Heels.
Last month, Carolina dropped the first two of the series at Virginia but won on Sunday and came back home to sweep Virginia Tech the following weekend. This weekend, that task will be tougher. First, the team hits the road on Tuesday to take on Gardner-Webb in the season’s final non-conference tilt. Then, it’s on to Coral Gables to take on the red-hot Miami Hurricanes. Miami is 22-5 in ACC play, having won seven straight and 17 of their last 18 in conference. The Diamond Heels, meanwhile, haven’t won a series at Miami since 2008, having been swept the last two trips.
Conventional wisdom says Carolina needs at least one win in Coral Gables to strengthen its NCAA Tournament résumé. It’s going to be a tough mountain to climb, but this team has shown it’s capable of playing with anybody. “I think the key is, we’ve just got to come out and play like every game’s a championship game,” Zengel said. “Too many times, we come out and don’t really get into the game or feel like we’re all ready until the fifth or sixth inning, and I think we’ve just got to make sure we come out ready to play every day. I think that’s the biggest thing, because if we come out ready to play, we can beat anybody, we can play with anybody. I think that’s the biggest thing we need to do.”
Sunday wins at Virginia and against Florida State proved that Carolina is capable of winning with their backs against the wall. In the last week of the season, they’ll need to do it again.