By Turner Walston
The faces in the Carolina baseball players' lounge were considerably longer Friday night than they had been four days prior, when the Tar Heels learned they were the no. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. After Davidson upset Carolina to earn that program's first-ever Regional win, the Tar Heels would have to go the long way to advance. They were down, but not out.
"We still feel that we're the best team in this regional," junior outfielder Brian Miller said after the 8-4 loss. "We've played well all year, we just didn't have it tonight. Hats off to them, but we're definitely not out. We're going to come back tomorrow ready to play. That's the good thing. Yeah, it's an uphill battle, but you get two losses and we've played well all year so we're 100 percent confident we can come back and win it."
The uphill battle that Miller referred to began with the early game Saturday, when the Tar Heels took on fellow 0-1 team Michigan. Mike Fox sent Gianluca Dalatri to the mound. With nothing to lose but a baseball game, they were loose and ready to play.
In his first NCAA Tournament start, the freshman commanded all four of his pitches for strikes. "That really enabled me to work a lot of counts," he said. "For all seven, I felt like I did a decent job of just keeping them off-balance."
In seven complete, he gave up five hits and a single run, walking two and striking out six. Three of Dalatri's hits allowed came in one inning, when Drew Lugbauer led off the second with a home run. "Next pitch," he said. "It doesn't really matter. Home runs happen, so I don't really care about that." The Wolverines followed the home run with a pair of infield singles, but Dalatri escaped without further damage. From there, he was locked in: Aside from a stolen base in the third, no Wolverine advanced past first base for the rest of the game.
Keying off the right-hander's stellar performance, the Tar Heel offense came around in the middle innings, putting up three apiece in the fifth and sixth and another two runs in the seventh en route to the 8-1 win. Despite the pressure of an elimination game staring them in the face, the Carolina hitters were patient at the plate, drawing nine walks and getting hit by pitches on three occasions. "Gianny just kept throwing zeroes up there for us," said Tyler Lynn. "[Michigan] obviously helped us out, giving us some free passes right there, and then Ashton [McGee] did a good job of two-strike hitting and taking what the pitcher gave him." Carolina's first run came on a two-out walk drawn by Logan Warmoth, then McGee took an outside pitch through the left side to drive in two more.
"It was more of a defensive swing," said McGee, who had struggled on Friday, going 0-5 against Davidson. "Going off yesterday and earlier at-bats this game, I struck out a couple of times, and 0-2, just trying to protect and just threw the bat out there and found a hole," he added, like a baseball player.
At month ago, Lynn put his senior season into perspective. "Going into the season, senior year, you go up with the realization that this could be it for me," he said after the sweep of Clemson. "I'm only promised 56 more games, so just try to have fun every day and enjoy it more than I used to."
Saturday was the first time that he'd arrived at Boshamer Stadium with the knowledge that the game he'd play could in fact be his last in a Carolina uniform. But he quickly put that thought away. "When I woke up this morning, I was like, 'Today doesn't feel like the last day I'm going to play,'" he said after going 3-4 with two runs scored and a run batted in. "Hopefully [I have that same feeling] tomorrow, but we were all still loose. We come in and the music's blaring, Adam [Pate]'s acting like an idiot and the locker room's loose. We played two-ball before the game just like it's another day, and that's just the way this team is. We're really loose."
They played like it on Saturday. The task before them is difficult: a team that loses the first game of an NCAA Tournament Regional must win four straight to advance to Super Regionals. That's one on day two, a double header on day three and finally another on day four. It's still a formidable task, but the Tar Heels can only tackle it one game, one pitch, one at-bat at a time. Needing a win, they prevailed by staying patient, not trying to do too much and being consistent with their approach.
"We get to play tomorrow," Miller had said Friday night. "So that's the encouraging thing, and we'll give it all we've got tomorrow."
And now, the Tar Heels will get to play tomorrow, again. And, if they take the lessons learned from Saturday into Sunday, they can earn themselves another tomorrow after that.