The 2008 ACC Pitcher of the Year and current first-team All-ACC team member Alex White (7-4) breezed through the first two innings, retiring Virginia's first six batters thanks to four strikeouts. But then the wheels fell off and were run over by an 18-wheeler trucking down the Durham Freeway.
The Greenville, N.C. junior coughed up a career-high-tying eight runs on six hits and two walks in the bottom of the third inning, lasting only 2 1/3 innings for his shortest outing since a 1 2/3 inning showing against Rice in the 2007 College World Series.
"It's just one of those innings where I made some bad pitches and they got hits and made some pretty decent pitches and they got hits," White told reporters during UNC's postgame press conference. "I couldn't seem to find and out when I needed it or a big strikeout. It is just one of those things that happens and we'll move on."
North Carolina allowed single-inning season highs of 10 runs on nine hits in the third, as all nine Virginia starters scored and 15 batters stepped to the plate. Oddly enough, a double was the only extra base hit in the inning, and that was Tyler Cannon's leadoff double that bounced off the left field wall.
You have to journey back in time to Apr. 11, 1998, to find the last time that North Carolina allowed 10 runs in one inning – a 20-4 loss to Florida State at Boshamer Stadium that saw the Seminoles post double digits in the second stanza.
For the remainder of the evening, the primary drama centered around whether or not Virginia would be able to carry a 10-run lead into the seventh inning, thereby invoking the mercy rule and ending the game early. That scenario arrived in the bottom of the eighth, when sophomore Nate Striz walked home the Cavaliers' 11th run with the bases loaded and two outs.
Meanwhile, Danny Hultzen (8-1), the ACC Freshman of the Year, struck out six and allowed just one run on five hits in 6 1/3 innings in front of an announced crowd of 6,319 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Levi Michael (2-for-3) put the Tar Heels on the board with a solo moon shot over the left field wall in the fifth inning, but UNC struggled at the plate , paling in comparison to Virginia's 14 hits. Five Cavaliers posted multi-hit games and eight recorded at least one RBI.
As painful as it may be, the Tar Heels will become big Duke fans on Saturday evening, provided UNC gets by No.3 Clemson in the 4 p.m. With Virginia securely in the driver's seat, a North Carolina win and Blue Devil victory over the Cavaliers would knot the three schools with 2-1 records in the round-robin format.
The ACC's first tiebreaker reads, "The team with the best overall conference winning percentage in regular season play will advance," meaning that UNC would advance to Sunday's finale. A North Carolina loss or a Virginia win would give the Cavaliers a shot at the conference crown, while sending the Tar Heels back to Chapel Hill to prepare for the NCAA Tournament next weekend.
INSIDE THE GAME
That's how long the bottom of the third inning took for the Cavaliers and their fans, but for the Tar Heels and the UNC faithful in the crowd, it may as well have been 47 hours.
Consider this – UVa pitcher Danny Hultzen, who was hitting .331 entering the night and bats sixth in the lineup, ran to the bullpen to warm up during the third inning after several of his teammates had already reached base. The freshman then returned to the dugout when it was his time to hit, proceeded to walk and eventually scored.
With the inning continuing to roll along, Hultzen then ran back to the bullpen to commence a second warm-up period before trotting out to the mound to start the fourth inning.
"The important thing was just staying loose," Hultzen said. "I didn't want to go out there having a cold arm, with it being a half-hour inning or whatever it was. But yeah, I was just trying to stay loose."
Catcher Franco Valdes added his own interesting mix to the story, hitting a single from the left side of the plate in his first at-bat before drawing a walk from the right side in his second trip to the batter's box.
"It was fun to sit in the dugout after I was off the bases to watch our team continue to get those hits and continue to have great at-bats," Valdes said. "It was fun seeing us actually get a lot of things together and score 10 runs on guys like Alex White and [Brian] Moran."
Raiding the Bullpen
Following Adam Warren's 8 1/3 inning performance on Wednesday, it was thought that White would roll out his typical six or seven innings in setting the Tar Heels' bullpen up nicely for a potential showdown with Florida State on Sunday afternoon.
It's shocking – or maybe devastating is a better word – what one inning can do to a pitching staff.
White and reliever Brian Moran, two of the ACC's top pitchers, combined to allow 10 runs on nine hits and three walks in the third inning, sending UNC's rotation on a downward spiral. Logan Munson, Greg Holt and Nate Striz provided valuable arms in holding Virginia to just one run and five hits over the final six innings, but now the pressure is on Matt Harvey to deliver on Saturday afternoon against Clemson.
With Patrick Johnson presumably slated for a possible Sunday championship game, if Harvey can hold up his end of the bargain – with a little help from Colin Bates – North Carolina will be able to avoid a 2008 College World Series repeat with a hodgepodge of arms thrown at the wall. If not, Fox will have quite the conundrum on his hands, especially with the NCAA Tournament just around the corner.
This scenario highlights the late April loss of sophomore pitcher Bryant Gaines (4-0, 4.08 ERA) to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. No doubt about it – depth is an issue for this squad.