"It was a terrific game," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters during his postgame press conference. "You have to credit Clemson for getting the big hit at the end. That was just a great game and I'm sure it was entertaining for the fans. We made some good plays and some not so good plays."
In a game choked full of big plays and ill-timed errors, the third-seeded Tigers needed a Patrick Johnson fielding miscue to set up the winning run. With the loss, North Carolina (42-16) is eliminated from the ACC Baseball Championship, and now must wait until Monday to learn whether or not they will receive a national seed for the NCAA Tournament.
The sophomore righty had cruised through 1 2/3 innings in after-regulation duty, giving up just one hit and three strikeouts. Even when Freeman stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom of the 11th, things appeared to be in check, as Johnson forced a hapless swing that provided a bunt-like dribbler towards third base.
As it turns out, it couldn't have worked out better for Clemson (40-19), as the charging pitcher fielded the ball and threw the ball – mid-air – to first base. The ball air-mailed Dustin Ackley before finally ending up in the Tar Heels' bullpen before it was retrieved.
"I knew it was going to be a quick play - I just tried to make a play," Johnson said.
Freeman (4-of-6, RBI) rounded the bases and slid into third base, prompting UNC to intentionally walk Jeff Schaus and Ben Paulsen. Johnson rose the occasion and struck out Kyle Parker looking, but Boyd fought through a full count and three foul balls to drill a fastball to the scoreboard in left field.
Clemson led 3-2 heading into the top of ninth, but Freeman mishandled a Ben Bunting bouncer up the middle allowing pinch runner Ryan Norton to score from second base.
The Tigers struck first with a Brad Miller RBI double in the second inning, but North Carolina answered with a two-out Kyle Seager RBI single to score Mike Cavasinni. Clemson added a Boyd RBI single and a Freeman homerun before Ackley answered with a moon shot of his own in the fifth to cut the deficit to 3-2.
After a shaky start, Matt Harvey (nine hits, two earned runs) settled down for six solid innings, setting the stage for a pitcher's duel with Casey Harman (7 1/3 innings, seven hits, two earned runs). Graham Stoneburner (1.0 inning, one hit, no runs) picked up the win for the Tigers, while Johnson was saddled with the loss.
The announced crowd of 6,956 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park marks the largest turnout to ever see a collegiate baseball game in the state of North Carolina.
INSIDE THE GAME
Failure to Launch
The Tar Heels nearly fought back and pulled out a victory against the Tigers on Saturday, but in the end, the inability to capitalize with men in scoring position was the team's undoing.
With North Carolina looking to even the 3-2 margin in the sixth inning, Ryan Graepel (3-for-4) singled and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. But Greg Holt struck out and Cavasinni flied out to left field. One inning later, Ben Bunting started things with a single to center field, but Ackley proceeded to strike out and the base runner was thrown out at second in a designed hit-and-run to end the threat.
Mark Fleury stepped to the plate with runners on first and second in the eighth inning, and promptly hit into a double play, and then in one of two questionable calls on the night, the Tar Heel catcher was thrown out at home when he attempted to stretch a Cavasinni single into a jaunt from second.
In all, North Carolina stranded 13 men on base.
Back to Bunting
Speaking of Bunting, he returned to the leadoff spot on Saturday and provided the results that North Carolina has been looking for at the top of the order. The sophomore leftfielder garnered three hits against just one strikeout – just his 23rd of the season.
"Ben has been our leadoff hitter," Fox said. "We just made a little bit of a change at [Boston College] just trying to get things going and trying to make Ben mad and it worked. So we put him back up there. Ben is a great hitter… He moves the ball and hangs in there against lefties and looks at the ball good. I'm sure he will be in that spot when we play next week."
His final at-bat resulted in the tying run scoring in the top of the ninth, thanks to Freeman's inability to field his hit over second base. And nearly as important as any of his plate appearances was his breakup of a potential 11th-inning double play.
Bunting singled to left field to start the inning, but when Ackley hit his third pitch into an apparent double play ball, the UNC leftfielder provided a solid obstacle for Miller to throw around.
"When Dusty hit it I knew that I had to try to beat it and when I saw it was close and I saw him spread his legs I tried to go into him cleanly without getting the interference call and getting Dusty out too," Bunting said.