CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Back in January, before the North Carolina baseball team’s season had kicked off, the Tar Heels held their annual First Pitch banquet. The 2007 team, which reached the College World Series’ championship series, was in attendance and senior outfielder Adam Pate sent a message directly to them.
“We haven’t met the standards that you guys set here and we’re going to change that.”
That bold declaration became a rallying call for the 2017 squad and culminated in the third-ranked Tar Heels (36-9, 19-5 ACC) sweep of No. 3 Clemson (34-11, 16-8 ACC) this weekend. Mike Fox’s team entered Sunday’s game having already clinched the series, but knew a perfect weekend would help propel his team into exam week.
It took extra innings, but in the bottom of the 10th senior left fielder Tyler Lynn legged out an infield single to score Ashton McGee and secure a 3-2 win. The Tar Heels held the Tigers to only seven runs while mounting late inning comebacks in all three games.
Friday night it was courtesy of a three run double in the seventh inning from Michael Busch. On Saturday, a four-run bottom of the eighth put the Tar Heels in the lead. And like the cherry on top of a stellar weekend, Lynn’s walk-off in the 10th sent Clemson home without a win on Sunday.
“It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment because they’re very, very good,” Fox said after the game. “I’m a little surprised because it’s so difficult to sweep in this league. I think we’re a little fortunate, but I think we also made our own breaks…. When you hold a team like that to seven runs in three days you’re giving yourself a chance to win.”
All three games saw the Boshamer Stadium stands packed with onlookers for the top-five matchup, giving the series a feeling of more than just a late April ACC meeting.
“It doesn’t get more like a Regional or Super Regional than what we just played in,” Lynn said.
That feeling is something that the Tar Heels have lacked over the past two seasons, as they’ve failed to reach the NCAA Regionals both years. The players from last season remember sitting in the team clubhouse during Selection Monday last May, but Fox wouldn’t even let them watch – he knew they weren’t going to make it.
That moment has defined the 2017 Tar Heels.
“Not making the regional and not making the ACC Tournament,” right fielder Brandon Riley said when asked what motivates this year’s club. “We have a lot of the same guys as we did last year and a lot of those same guys felt what we felt when we didn’t make the ACC Tournament and didn’t make the Regionals. I think a lot of guys have stored that away in the back of their minds.”
The differences one year can make was palpable this weekend, with no one on the team believing that three straight comeback wins would have been possible in 2016.
“Last year, any time it was a close game we found a way to lose it,” Lynn said. “We didn’t catch any breaks, but this year you just feel that confidence.”
The series win is the Tar Heels’ eighth straight in conference play and tenth overall this season. Last year UNC only won four of its 10 ACC series.
Pate promised change back in January, and the Diamond Heels have backed his words up entering the final month of the regular season.