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April 25, 2012When center fielder Chaz Frank slapped a game-winning single off the shortstop's glove in the bottom of the 10th inning against East Carolina Wednesday night, it was akin to turning a relief valve in an enormous steam plant.
UNC lost two of three games to Georgia Tech during the weekend and then lost to UNC Greensboro on Tuesday. To say the Tar Heels were desperate for a victory might be too strong. Then again, it may not.
The 1-0 victory gave the Tar Heels their 30th victory of the season against 13 losses.
"I was more nervous for this game than I've been in awhile," senior catcher Jacob Stallings said. "We didn't want to lose two in a row going into exams. You don't want to study very much if we lost two in a row. This is a big game.
"It's always a big game when we play ECU. We tried to be locked in, but I guess it didn't show much at the plate. We just missed some pitches."
The exam break could be the key for this victory because the Tar Heels do not play this weekend. So this allowed ace and Friday starter Kent Emanuel to pitch.
Emanuel was as good as he was in the College World Series a year ago, when he shut out Texas to keep UNC alive.
"That was the best I've seen Kent in awhile," Stallings said.
Emanuel did not walk a batter. He struck out seven and allowed just four hits.
"ECU was a really good team," Emanuel said. "So it wasn't like the competition was any different than the competition I'm used to seeing on the weekends. It was another day at the ballpark."
For Emanuel maybe it was. He's that kind of cool character on the mound. And when he is on top of his game the way he was this night, he is incredibly difficult to hit because he has total command of all his pitches. Time and again, he had East Carolina hitters out on their toes with his change-ups.
As far as being one of his best outings, he agreed that he had his top stuff.
"I wish we could have won in regulation, but I guess we like to make it interesting," Emanuel said. "It was up there [as far as having his best command of pitches.]. If I can go without walking anyone, that's good. I was able to do that today."
He didn't want to come out of the game, but the coaching staff replaced him after he got the first out in the top of the ninth. Of course, they went to UNC's star reliever Michael Morin, who got the victory after striking out three in one and two-thirds innings.
East Carolina almost pulled it out in the ninth inning, though. The Pirates had two runners on when a sharp-hit ball darted to UNC's Michael Russell at shortstop. Russell was playing his first game at short, so he did not exactly make the correct play. But the result turned out well when first baseman Cody Stubbs threw out the runner trying to score at the plate.
It was a close call. Stallings even went over and tagged the runner again as he was lying off to the side of home plate. Stallings said he did not think the runner ever touched home.
"The umpire called him out, so it didn't matter anyway," Coach Mike Fox said.
Carolina could not do anything at the plate in the bottom of the ninth, going down one, two, three.
Morin did a better job of getting the Pirates out in the top of the 10th, setting up the dramatic bottom half of the inning.
UNC did not start the at-bat well, however. The Tar Heels made two outs before putting anyone on base.
Then third baseman Mike Zolk drew a walk to keep the inning going. That brought up Parks Jordan, the left fielder.
Getting big hits at crucial point of the game is becoming a habit for Jordan. He did it again on a hit-and-run with two outs.
His clean single to right field sent Zolk to third. Jordan eventually stole second.
That brought Frank to the plate.
Frank had driven two balls to the fence earlier in the game for doubles, but could not get a teammate to bring drive him in. This time it was his turn to seek the RBI.
The count went to 2-2 and the left-handed hitting Frank just kept fouling off pitches.
"I knew going in he had a real good splitter," Frank said. "It dives away from lefties. I was just trying to stay through the ball and not do too much. When I got two strikes, he just kept throwing slurve, after slurve after slurve. [combination curve and slider].
"They kept diving under my bat, and I kept fouling them off. He finally left a splitter up, and I drove it past the shortstop."
Fox and Frank had been working together before the game. This followed Fox sending Frank a letter via e-mail earlier in the day, urging him to be the player that he is.
"That is Chaz Frank when he hits the ball on the ground," Fox said. "We've been on him all year long about fly-ball outs. He's been trying to do a little too much. I sent him letter today, comparing his style of play in this part of his career to [former UNC outfielder] Ben Bunting's.
"They had very similar careers. Ben got a little home run happy when he popped a couple out. I emphasized to Chaz that he is a singles hitter. That is what you are. Last year you had 50-some-odd singles and drove in 35 runs. Singles drive in runs, too."
The loss just continued a string of frustration for the Pirates in Chapel Hill. East Carolina has now lost 14 straight games at Carolina, dating back to 1994.
When it comes to frustration, the Tar Heels understand it well after the last week or so.
"This was a huge win for us, going into finals and the way we have been scuffling a little bit," Fox said. "We needed to feel a little bit better about ourselves going into this break."
No one should feel better about himself than Emanuel, after showing yet again just how good he is.
"You don't want to have a loss lingering over your head, with a big stretch without playing," Emanuel said. "I'm glad they turned to me, in spite of it being short rest."
So are the rest of the Tar Heels.