ACC’s Two Leaders Show Big HeartColumns
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — What a day for college baseball in the Triangle.
On a postcard-quality spring afternoon with temperatures in the low 70s and clear blue skies, great crowds showed up to watch a pair of fun, compelling games at Duke’s Jack Coombs Field and North Carolina’s Boshamer Stadium. I started the day in Durham, where NC State clinched a huge ACC showdown series with a taut 2-1 victory over the Blue Devils, in front of the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at Coombs, split between fans wearing red and blue. After that pitchers’ duel concluded, I made it to Chapel Hill for the second half of North Carolina’s series-clinching 9-8 win over Georgia Tech in front of 3,871 fans. The Wolfpack and Tar Heels, who lead their respective divisions in the ACC, showed off their impressive toughness in a variety of different ways.
I’ll get to the heroics of NC State’s Brian Brown, Josh McLain and Will Wilson in a bit, but let’s start with the frenetic finish in Chapel Hill, perhaps the most exciting game I’ve seen all year.
Georgia Tech had just scored three runs in the fifth to take a 5-2 lead when I arrived at the Bosh, and Jackets lefthander Conor Thomas was in complete command, spotting his fastball well and mixing in a very good 79-81 mph slider. UNC coach Mike Fox later said he was just hoping his team could drive up Thomas’ pitch count and do something with the Tech bullpen; Thomas finally exited after 6.2 innings, allowing two runs (one earned) while striking out eight.
But still Georgia Tech seemed to be cruising to victory in the eighth, when it had padded its lead to 6-2. That’s when the Tar Heels dipped into their deep bench to find a spark, and did that bench ever deliver. Pinch-hitter Clemente Inclan drew a key walk to help load the bases with two outs, whereupon Fox summoned another pinch-hitter: lefthanded slugger Jackson Hesterlee.
Facing Georgia Tech righty Andy Archer, whose calling card is a dastardly changeup that gives lefties fits, Hesterlee fell behind in the count 0-2. Then Archer threw another changeup down and in, and Hesterlee launched it over the right-field fence for a game-tying grand slam, electrifying the Tar Heels and their crowd.