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May 17, 2013

Night of Celebration

CHAPEL HILL--- UNC's second-ranked baseball team fought and clawed for over seven innings with No. 7 Virginia Friday night just to stay in a game that with each passing inning, seemed to be slipping out of its grasp.

Coming off a humbling 10-4 loss to the Cavaliers the night before, UNC couldn't afford to take another loss on Friday, lest they had to play another game against UVa on Saturday with the Coastal Division title at stake.

But just when it looked like the Cavaliers were cruising to a second straight win, a couple of costly UVa errors, coupled with some clutch UNC hitting and base running, led to a six-run bottom of the eighth for Carolina, reversing a 5-2 UVa lead and paving the way for an 8-5 UNC triumph that clinched the Coastal outright for the Diamond Heels.

"It means a lot for us, obviously. This is the first ACC (best regular season record) since 1990. For us to be a part of it, it's just a huge, huge accomplishment for us," said Mike Zolk, who had four RBIs for UNC with a pair of two-RBI extra-base hits over the course of the game.

The win secured the No. 1 seed for UNC in next week's ACC Tournament in Durham, while also taking off a ton of pressure. Now the Diamond Heels don't have to worry about getting swept by UVa, and its final two regular season contests Saturday against the Cavaliers and Monday against Florida State serve as little more than postseason tuneups.

Virginia drew first blood in the top of the third, as Cavaliers No. 9 hitter Nate Irving bounced a high chopper in front of third base and legged it out for an infield hit.

The next batter, UVa's .400-plus hitting leadoff man Mike Papi, drilled a double into the right field gap to easily bring home Irving for the first run of the evening against UNC starter Benton Moss, who would go on to allow four runs in five-plus innings of work.

The Wahoos padded its lead in the fourth as leadoff man Brandon Downes, the squad's cleanup hitter with team highs in homers (7) and RBIs (53) coming in, blasted an opposite-field homer over the fence in the right-center power alley to make it 2-0.

Derek Fisher followed Downes' homer by blasting a double into the left field gap, and after some alert baserunning, advancing to third on a strikeout in the dirt, Fisher scored on a grounder up the middle by Kenny Towns for a 3-0 lead.

It got pretty quiet inside Boshamer during the fourth inning but the Heels' fortunes were quickly revived, as Michael Russell singled, Cody Stubbs walked, and Zolk drilled a pitch off the wall in the right field corner to bring home Russell and Stubbs to trim the count to 3-2 in favor of Virginia.

Zolks' double was the first left-handed hit of the night for the Diamond Heels against Virginia ace Southpaw Scott Silverstein, who came in with an 8-1 record, but it wouldn't be his last.

Papi led off the fifth for Virginia with a sky-high blast that managed to just clear the right field fence into the trees for a solo homer, giving the Cavaliers a two-run lead again at 4-2.

Virginia threatened again in the top of the sixth but UNC reliever Chris McCue, who was so masterful earlier in the week with three innings of shutout ball against Appalachian State, came on and got a huge strikeout to end the UVa threat.

In the bottom of the sixth Russell led off with his third hit of the night off Silverstein, and with two outs Zolk blasted another deep drive into right field. This one was into the gap and came about ten feet away from tying the game, but a jumping grab by UVa's Joe McCarthy at the base of the fence killed the inning for Carolina.

UNC had another chance to tie the game in the seventh when Lassiter walked, but Moran, in the midst of a 1-for-9 stretch to that point in this series, was unable to come through.

McCue had to work himself out of a serious jam in the eighth, as Virginia put runners on second and third with just one out.

And though the Cavaliers added to its lead, making the score 5-2 on a sacrifice fly by Reed Gragnani, McCue stopped the bleeding there, which turned out to be huge.

Virginia had played largely perfect baseball up until the bottom of the eighth, but their armor finally cracked a little when shortstop Nick Howard booted a grounder off the bat of Brian Holberton.

It was the very opening the Diamond Heels so desperately needed---and once they opened it, there was no turning back.

Russell, who was three-for-three up to that point in the game, stepped up and ripped a triple into the left field gap, scoring Holberton to cut the UVa advantage to 5-3.

Cody Stubbs was subsequently hit by a pitch, which brought the go-ahead run, Zolk, to the plate. 

Zolk had hit the ball hard all night, and in this critical at-bat with the game on the line he came through yet again, crushing a ball into the deepest reaches of the right field alley.

From the moment it left Zolk's bat, everyone in the stands knew it was an entirely new ballgame.

As Virginia's center fielder Downes struggled to come up with the ball after its bounding carom off the wall, Russell waltzed home from third and Stubbs raced all the way home from first to tie the game at 5 apiece, sending off a frenzied cheer from the home folks.

It wasn't over either, as Parks Jordan stepped up and ripped a clean single through the left side to score Zolk to give UNC its first lead of the night, 6-5.

"I'm not going to say I expected (us) to (come back), but I definitely hoped so," said Zolk about UNC's late rally."

"Russell was seeing the ball well. Stubbs was seeing the ball well. And I was seeing the ball well with the lefty, so I was just looking to drive the ball into the outfield, and it actually fell," said Zolk.

Just for good measure the Heels would add two more runs before they were through---a six-run bottom of the eighth that shook Virginia to its core.

"I feel like we can always fight back. We've put up six and seven run innings two or three times a week. So I figure it can happen at any point," said Zolk.

Trent Thornton closed the game in the ninth, setting off a celebration on the field that was followed by a pre-scheduled fireworks exhibition in the outfield of Boshamer.

UNC concludes its three-game set with Virginia Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill on Senior Day.


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