If NC State cleared one thing up at the 2016 ACC Baseball Championship it would have to be that the game is not truly over until it is over.
Fresh off of two straight defeats in which it allowed runs late to blow a lead, and with memories of a painful Regional loss at TCU last season still lingering, the Wolfpack (35-20) defied improbable odds to rally past Georgia Tech, 7-5, in front of 5,848 fans Friday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Trailing by two runs with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, NC State’s Shane Shepard hit a seemingly harmless popup to center field that appeared to end the game.
As Ryan Peurifoy camped under the ball, a sea of red began to rise to exit the ballpark. Then it happened.
His flawless mechanics notwithstanding, Peurifoy simply dropped the ball. NC State made the most of its reprieve as Stephen Pitarra then laced a two-run single to tie the game and give the Wolfpack, a team accustomed to playing extra-inning games in Durham, a new lease on life.
“We obviously got lucky,” NC State head coach Elliott Avent said. “But if you don’t quit sometimes you get lucky.”
Brock Deatherage homered over the left field wall in the 12th inning to hand the Wolfpack an improbable win.
NC State has seemed to float on the bubble all season in terms of whether it deserves to host a regional. With the answer forthcoming on Sunday, the Wolfpack entered the matchup versus Georgia Tech winless in the ACC Baseball Championship and 3-9 overall in the month of May.
Avent thinks he knows why.
“It looks to a lot of people like we might be limping in,” Avent said. “Actually, if anybody in the country had to play the teams we did down the stretch they would have a tough time faring any better.”
Now the potential to slay another demon awaits the Wolfpack.
Whether it is in Raleigh or elsewhere, NC State can assuage any continuing resentment at allowing a near-certain trip to the Super Regionals slip through its hands last season. The ACC, one of the best baseball conferences in the nation, has seen teams come up short in its conference tournament only to do exceedingly well on the national level often before.
“We’ve played a couple of really good teams of late,” NC State catcher Andrew Knizner said. “So I guess it is nice to get a big win like this and have a little bit of momentum going into a Regional.”
The game against Georgia Tech was meaningless for NC State in the context of winning an ACC title but so was the bitter defeat to Miami just the day before.
After allowing a three-run homer late against the Hurricanes, the victory over the Yellow Jackets seemed to refresh NC State. Avent hopes the good vibes carry on and the next demon can be slayed.
“Jimmy Valvano always told me winning is good, losing is bad,” Avent said. “That always stuck in my mind. When you lose, it beats you up a little bit and these guys have been beat up enough.
“So it is nice to get a win because I think it does let you know who you are and not forget exactly what we are all about.”