Baseball is a funny game.
It can lift you up and it can crush you. One day a team can shut out an opponent, the next day, that same opponent can score 13 runs in an inning and win by nearly double digits.
How well teams play in February, March and April – or in North Carolina’s case, May – rarely matter. If a team has a bad day in the postseason, the season can end.
That’s what happened to UNC in its Chapel Hill Super Regional game against Auburn Monday. The Tigers scored 13 runs in the top of the first inning, and claimed a 14-7 victory over the Tar Heels to clinch a spot in the College World Series - a spot the Tar Heels’ hoped would be theirs.
But now, the Tar Heels won’t travel to Omaha for the second consecutive year and the 12th time in program history. Instead, their 45-19 season is over.
“It’s hard to get to Omaha,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “It’s hard to get this close and not get there.”
When the Tigers recorded the final out, their players rushed the field, throwing their hats in the air and dousing each other with water before doing a dogpile in front of the pitcher’s mound.
From the dugout, the Tar Heels’ players watched the celebration in disbelief. UNC junior catcher Brandon Martorano placed a towel over his face and shook his head.
After the game, UNC first baseman Michael Busch, who finished 1-for-4, could barely contain his emotions. Busch, a junior, was drafted in the first round of the MLB draft last week, and this was likely his final game at UNC.
“That series, it was tough,” Busch said with tears in his eyes. He paused as he tried to collect himself, but the words couldn’t come out.
It was a disappointing result to a postseason that started with so much promise.
The Tar Heels won eight of their last nine games entering Monday’s contest. They won four consecutive games to win the ACC tournament. They went on to win three straight in the NCAA’s Chapel Hill Regional before hosting Auburn in the super regional.
In Game 1, UNC led the Tigers 5-2 heading into the eighth inning.
But baseball happened, and the Tigers (38-26), who hadn’t made it to a College World Series since 1997, flipped the script.
The Tigers scored nine runs in the final two innings to win 11-7. Before that game, UNC’s bullpen had been its best unit, going 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA and two saves in the ACC tournament and regional.
Relief pitchers sophomore Joey Lancellotti, redshirt freshman Austin Love and redshirt senior Hansen Butler were nearly unstoppable. Until Saturday.
The three relief pitchers gave up a combined eight earned runs on Saturday, which was more than they allowed in the previous seven games combined.
Love recovered in Game 2. He pitched 4 2/3 shutout innings in relief to help the Tar Heels win 2-0 and force a Game 3.
But the trouble in Game 3 began in the first inning. Fox and his staff went with an unconventional approach and started Lancellotti for his second start of the season.
Lancellotti, a sophomore, walked the first four batters he faced.
Fox replaced Lancellotti with freshman RHP Connor Ollio. Ollio struggled too. So Fox replaced Ollio with Butler, a senior.
But it continued to get worse.
Butler allowed six runs, only one earned, and was replaced before recording an out.
When the 49-minute half-inning was finally over, the Tar Heels had gone through four pitchers, threw 65 pitches, faced 18 batters, allowed nine hits, walked five batters, committed an error and allowed 13 runs, all before they even got a chance to bat.
“We wouldn’t be in this game if it wasn’t for Joey Lancellotti, I know that,” Fox said. “It’s part of it. If I knew what was going to happen before it happened, it’d be a lot easier, but I guess that’s for fans to do.”
Monday’s game was sold out. But by the bottom of the sixth inning, and the Tar Heels trailing by nine, there were half as much fans there as there were when it started.
Aaron Sabato, a talented UNC freshman, finished the game 2-for-5 with two home runs and three RBI’s. UNC junior second baseman Ashton McGee was 2-for-3 with a home run and three RBI’s.
But no matter what they did, whether it was scoring three runs in the fourth, or loading the bases in the eighth, the 13-run hole proved to be too much.
For this UNC baseball team, it will be their last game playing together. Some who were drafted will go onto the play professionally. The seniors will graduate and move on too.
Fox said that hurts most.
“They’re like your children, they’re like your family,” Fox said, his voice cracking. “And you always hate to see your family broken up.”