Heels play State for Fox, Pride

UNC's matchup on the diamond with N.C. State Saturday night in Greensboro doesn't have any bearing on Carolina's ACC Tournament aspirations---Miami's 5-3 victory over the Diamond Heels Thursday and subsequent victory over Wake Forest Friday night took care of that, eliminating the Tar Heels from contention for Sunday's championship game.
But after the way the Heels lost on Thursday---and having to watch their mild-mannered head coach Mike Fox lose his cool and get himself suspended for today's ballgame---there could very well be a group of fired up players on the UNC side ready to avenge Fox while overcoming the setback to the 'Canes, which ended a 14-game winning streak for Carolina.
And for players and fans of the Tar Heels, there's always motivation to beat the Wolfpack when the two schools meet, no matter the sport or the stakes.
The Diamond Heels may very well have already earned a top seeding in the upcoming NCAA Tournament with its 43-14 record and ACC Coastal Division title, which could provide the advantage of playing in Boshamer Stadium through both the Regional and Super Regional rounds the next two weekends should they advance that far.
But by beating the Wolfpack---a solid all-around team with a 39-16 record who is also in position to host at least one round in the NCAA Tournament---the Tar Heels could solidify it's postseason resume for the committee that will decide whether Carolina will get one of the eight coveted 'National Seed' spots.
Aside of the natural benefits of playing an additional game, the implications of how a win would help Carolina's national seeding for the NCAAs is really the only practical significance of this particular game from UNC's perspective.
But when it's the Tar Heels and Wolfpack---no matter the sport---practicality often gets thrown out the window on the way to the game, and the fans who make their way to NewBridge Bank Park will likely easily allow themselves to drown out the practical insignificance of the game from Carolina's point of view in the heat of another battle with the hated Wolfpack.
And the fact that UNC's players are going to be out to avenge their coach adds a whole other dimension to this game, although on paper N.C. State arguably has a little more on the line than the Diamond Heels tonight.
NCSU has still got a chance to play on Sunday, as a win over Carolina---combined with its thrilling come-from-behind win over Miami on Wednesday---would put them in the finale.
It would also enhance State's argument that they're a team that should get some consideration for a National Seed---perhaps even over Carolina---if they can beat UNC tonight and then win the ACC Tournament.
State is going to send out fireballing Southpaw Carlos Rodon, who earlier this week became the first freshman in ACC history to win Pitcher of the Year honors.
Rodon hasn't lost a game all season---posting a 9-0 record with a 1.59 ERA.
He gave up two runs in six-plus innings in late March when he last met the Tar Heels, earning a no-decision as Carolina claimed a ninth inning walk-off win over the Wolfpack at the Bosh.
Rodon could have thrown Thursday against Wake Forest, but the Wolfpack have saved him for this particular outing against Carolina knowing it would likely be for a berth in the title game.
Carolina can't play on Sunday no matter what happens against State due to the rules of the ACC Tournament, which means that the Diamond Heels will likely give liberal pitching time to two guys against the Wolfpack---left-hander Hobbs Johnson, who was masterful last weekend in taking a perfect game into the eighth inning against Virginia Tech, and right-handed rookie Benton Moss, who has had a solid first season as a Tar Heel.
Moss comes into the game sporting a 6-2 record and ERA at 2.13, while Johnson comes in at 6-1 with a 1.40 ERA.
Even with the Tar Heels loaded with quality hitters and NCSU boasting four different players who entered the ACC Tournament with batting averages of .340 or better, runs could be scarce tonight with the guys who will be throwing on the hill.
The practical elements of both teams needing a win to strengthen their NCAA Tournament credentials---and NCSU needing the win to advance to Sunday---should be the prevailing source of the competition in this game.
But it's going to be interesting to see how UNC comes out and plays in light of the fact that Coach Fox won't be at the game.
He won't be at his usual spot along the third base line when Carolina is hitting, and won't be in the dugout to lead the ballclub when they're out in the field.
Fox was suspended after a postgame ejection on Thursday following an altercation with home plate umpire Randy Harvey on the final pitch of the Miami game.
UNC, trailing by two runs, had the winning runs on base for slugger Colin Moran, who watched three pitches---arguably all balls---be called strikes to end the game.
The third and final strike was particularly galling---a low pitch that seemed closer to the ground than the strike zone.
Although photographic evidence shows the pitch was multiple inches below Moran's knees Harvey called it strike three, ending the game and sending the normally cool-and-collected Fox into a rage.
Fox followed Harvey off the field to give him his opinion of the strike call, motivating second base umpire Scott Erby to get involved and ultimately resulting in a post-participation ejection.
"Coach Fox was warned twice following the game for arguing the last pitch. He continued to engage a member of the crew at which time he was issued a post-participation ejection," said crew chief Bryant Woodall.
"You'll have to ask them (the umps why I was ejected)," Fox said in the postgame interview room. "They think there's no emotion involved here after the game apparently. You're not supposed to say anything. It's hard to play this game without emotion."
Scott Forbes will take the reigns for Carolina tonight in Coach Fox's absence, as he did last spring in the NCAA Regional after Fox's mother passed away.
"Hopefully, it will be a big crowd, and State's got a great team that will present all kinds of challenges," Fox said to Harold Gutman of the Durham Herald-Sun. "I would expect a really good, competitive game no matter what's at stake."