Bring the pain: Baseball overload at the ACC tournament

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by Jeff Laughlin

Hours floated away like cinematic apparitions. Days bled into nights that bled into the floodlights. Indifference set in. Discussions of stats and opportunities lost all meaning. Names jumbled together like they were part of a giant unsolvable crossword puzzle. Throughout the weekend, my sister-photographer and I, both armed with an unbelievable amount of sports knowledge, couldn’t remember who played in the next game, ever.

Tournaments work this way.

Repetition and baseball go hand and hand, but tournaments build and release tension so often that it gets lost in the importance of each pitch. Tournaments represent the worst of sports — sleepy hazes fall over the players and crowd alike. I mean, who can bear this much? The ACC Baseball Tournament crammed 15 three-hour games into five days with the same in-game entertainment and radio-friendly sing-alongs while we tried to ignore how sloppy and tired the players looked.

Still, the stretching of athletic accomplishment always produces fascinating results. These long, agonizing weeks expose weaknesses, force coaches into tight situations they may not experience during the regular season and test the limits of even the most ardent sports fans.

I mean, how else do we end the ACC season with the No. 9-seed Georgia Tech — coming all the way from the opening night play-in game — facing No. 6-seed Maryland in their last game as an ACC participant? Who wants that? But in sports, what people want and what they get very rarely coincide.

Days 1-2: 36 Chambers 

Point of fact, the tournament’s first game pitted UNC and NC State, the two home-crowd favorites, in a Tuesday morning elimination game. Their 15-inning semifinal game two tournaments ago has become a moment of legendary import. Last year, they battled twice in the College World Series Regionals. This year, they fought to qualify for pool play and their game lived up to the hype.

The game had it all: big defensive plays, one of the most egregiously terrible calls I’ve ever seen, great relief pitching and a do-or-die mentality that both casual and die-hard college sports fans claim as the reason for their preference over professional sports.

In the end UNC won 4-3, to the delight of powder-blue collars the world over. Adding fuel to the already overhyped fire, UNC took it after an out call at home plate that would have likely caused extra innings. Not only was NC State’s Trea Turner safe, but the umpire appeared, in photos reviewed after the game, to have been looking away from the play.

And so it went for the most attended game of the entire tournament. The crowd, though half of them left with that superior smirk, still saw a game replete with missed opportunities on both sides and savvy pitching from stacked bullpens. When the runners left on base returned to their dugouts, NC State’s season effectively ended; UNC’s soldiered on.

The dismal North Carolina performances would become a harrowing theme, continued by more missed opportunities for Wake Forest in the Day 1 nightcap.

In a 5-3 loss to Georgia Tech, Wake left 13 runners on base, ending so many rallies with men on that I sincerely wondered aloud if they had set a record.

Of course, losing to an eventual championship contender should leave a modicum of pride for any team. Unfortunately, having your season end when so many opportunities presented themselves defeats any purposeful re-reading of Wake’s failure.

Elimination games so often leave bitter tastes lingering on fans’ tongues. To combat that and the idea that teams should be able to showcase their entire pitching staff, the ACC employed a pool system when they expanded years ago. UNC entered the “pool of death,” as portrayed by several media outlets, with national championship contenders Florida State and Virginia, and a Maryland team that won nine straight coming into the tourney. UNC had already dodged facing a MLB draft Top 3 pick in Carlos Rodon on an NC State team that won several in a row to even make the play-in game, what low-ranked teams must do to even get in the tournament.

Georgia Tech had to best a pool with top-seeded Miami, No. 4 Duke and No. 5 Clemson. Not exactly an easy task. Both UNC and Georgia Tech had to play four games in five days. The odds against them, they marched into Day 2 to face the Top 2 teams in the tournament.

After a Duke loss earlier in the day, UNC stood as the last bastion of hometown heroes. While it was not impossible to win either pool with an early loss, dropping to 0-1 made the next two games must-win and not an ideal situation.

Add in the fact that they were not shoo-ins to make the NCAA Tournament and a win over Florida State looked entirely necessary. Unfortunately, FSU played one of the best all-around games of the tournament. A four-run fourth inning made the game 5-0, as FSU mixed power and precision pitching to leave a pro-UNC crowd with very little to cheer about.

That did not deter middle-aged men from bullying fans into “Go! Heels!” chants while clapping furiously amidst the shellacking. This continued throughout the tournament. In their later loss to Virginia, grown-men “cheerleaders” consistently peppered the crowd with maniacally flapping arms and lung-exasperating screams.

It would be easy to admire them, but just as easy to tire of their God complexes and desire for attention.

Give me a heckler over a tiresome faux cheerleader any day. At least hecklers’ desire for attention can result in hilarity. Faux cheerleaders end up begetting more eye rolls and half-hearted participation than any inspiration they believe they are imparting on the already beleaguered players.

Baseball’s game length necessitates a code among the fans. It’s agreed that during the frequent lulls, we murmur quietly amongst ourselves and enjoy the outdoors. This tournament featured the best weather the area has seen in months: 80 degrees during the day and 65-72 at night.

During the exciting parts of a game, most people cheer willingly. It’s the codebreakers, the fans standing and screaming their lungs out in the third inning with no one on and one out, who punish the solitude of baseball.

It always seems like the teams I hate have the most belligerent fans. As if I needed any more reason to cheer against Duke.

Florida State ended UNC’s hope for an ACC championship with Jameis Winston — a controversy magnet and quarterback of a national championship team — recording a 1-2-3 inning. I felt no small bit of elation watching heads bury into hands.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech’s natural disadvantage wilted away with an upset of the No. 2 Miami Hurricanes. Miami, led by the loudest and most annoying sideline cheerleader, built a 3-1 lead before Georgia Tech hammered their relievers for five unanswered runs.

You could hear him from anywhere in the stadium.

“UH-HUH. UH-HUH. UH-HUH,” he said, after every pitch. “DIRT BALL DIRT BALL DIRT BALL,” he’d scream at opposing pitchers. He never wavered.

He’d been at earlier games not involving Miami, and still kept the cheer going. After a few annoying innings, his cadence bordered on white noise, soothing me into taking notes and watching out after out.

“OKAY DALE GET A HIT. OKAY DALE GET A HIT. OKAY DALE GET A HIT,” he yelled in a staccato pattern. He referred to Dale Carey, a player very obviously trying to bunt over a runner. When other fans respectfully died down for each pitch, he just kept screaming. His voice never wavering, he held up homemade signs celebrating the Hurricanes’ brilliance and paced around the knoll just below the kids play area at Newbridge Bank Park, where he knocked children over for foul balls. Audible groans from other patrons followed him wherever he went. Security guards conveniently disappeared when he sauntered into their sections.

When people would try and pin him down to talk to him — me included — he would uncomfortably tell asinine and untrue stories: “I’ve caught 47, no 67 foul balls. You gotta watch those foul balls. I’ve been hit 67 times.” He also refused to give me his name. More importantly, he attended an amazing amount of the games, each one revealing him to be more insane than previously thought.

This proved something: You had to be crazy or paid to watch this much college baseball. By the time Miami fell to Georgia Tech, the crowd seemed exhausted. And we were only into day two.

Day 3: Bring da Ruckus

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” lost all meaning as I listened to it for around the 10th time last week. The little ditty, originally written in 1908 as advice about what to do on a date, has only one rival, and Memorial Day weekend added a little meaning to the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Most people attend, at best, a baseball game every season or so, so they don’t notice the patterns. Each inning brought a “new” between-inning game to appease the hordes, but those of us in the press box would have paid for silence. Above the mindless chatter of baseball fans and teams, we heard the fans challenged to sing Journey and Bon Jovi choruses, which they did with raucous abandon.

Truthfully, only one line rang true: We were only halfway there.

Cramming three games into one day, three days straight has consequences. The staff, the writers and the statisticians in the press box all looked shellshocked, but the players started to look tight. Wild pitches and errors increased; innings grew longer. In this way it fed on itself.

And it worked to a major disadvantage to the best teams. Florida State, Miami, Virginia and Clemson all had zero statistical chance of missing the NCAA Tournament so the ACC crown would have been nice but unnecessary.

Maryland, the No. 6 seed, likely had a guaranteed trip to the regionals in hand, but they were playing well, had the first day of the tournament off and definitely had a chance for easier matchups in their regional games.

Of course, Maryland had sentimental reasons for trying to win this tournament too.

This would be their last. Maryland jumped ship to the Big 10 Conference  not long ago and this served as their final stand in a major sport before their move completes. They also had not been good enough to make the tournament — only the Top 10 in the ACC get an invitation — since 2005.

2005!

Shaking off a decade of poor play, Maryland had much to prove to the NCAA selection committee and to their well traveled fans.

Their offense played like a powerhouse, not the doormat of the previous decade. Four home runs motored them to a 7-6 win against Virginia, which confused even the Maryland coach.

“We are not a home-run hitting team, but obviously this ballpark plays differently than our home ballpark does,” Maryland coach John Szefc said. “We were able to take advantage of it.  You don’t normally go out and expect to score seven runs against Virginia.”

Truth. Virginia had a dominant defense and fantastic pitching all season, allowing only four teams previous to Maryland to score 7 or more runs. Two of those games were against higher seeds in the ACC tournament and they won every three-game series in which they gave up that many runs. That didn’t matter here, though. UVA had to win their next two and get some help to have a shot, which shocked their faithful.

With a surprising win, an 11-game streak and a rested team, Maryland positioned themselves well for a run at the title. Georgia Tech had the same momentum going for them — a win over Duke would have all but placed them in the title game two days early and allowed them to take the last game in pool play easily.

Duke senior Drew Van Orden had another plan. In easily the best-pitched game of the week, Van Orden struck out eight in a complete-game shutout — the first of only two shutouts of the tourney. Oh, and the only one of his collegiate career.

“Couldn’t have come at a better time,” Van Orden said. “I struggled the last two weeks a little bit so it was good to try and come back and give the team everything I had and give them a chance to win.  It was great out there. The defense played great behind me, and the coach called great pitches so everything was working.”

The kid’s a quote machine.

He allowed only five hits and seven baserunners in total. To put that in perspective, UNC and NC State left 10 runners stranded in their game and scored three times.

Georgia Tech’s third game in three days felled them, but they were still very much alive to win the tournament. In pool play, with only three games left, Game 1 means a ton to each team. Duke faced an elimination game against Tech, whereas Tech still faced an even swap. Win on Friday, and they could watch Duke face No. 1 seeded Miami on Saturday.

Would Miami have anything to play for? Their game against Clemson matched them against a 1-0 team. Two losses would obviously eliminate them, a complete shock to the pool and the Miami fan base that littered the stands for the afternoon game. They won the regular-season title, they seemed a lock for a Top 8 seed in the NCAA regional — those seeds host their first-round games. They certainly did not seem like a team that would lose to two lower seeds in a row.

This Hurricanes team had some questionable losses on their schedule, though, and they had dropped two in a row three times already. Not to say 40 wins in a college baseball season made them a weak No. 1, but they showed they could be bested. Clemson came in 0-3 against them having scored two runs in each loss.

If you had asked Miami how well they thought they’d do against a team they’d swept: They’d likely predict a win. But the offense only mustered runs in the 3rd as Clemson’s Daniel Gossett maneuvered his way out of jams like an Iron Eagle.

He wasn’t the only hero. Senior Jon McGibbon hit a pinch-hit homer in the 6th to tie the game at 2. Then, in the ninth, Steve Wilkerson hit a walk-off single to score Tyler Slaton. When the dogpile cleared, Clemson was 2-0 and Miami was eliminated.

I don’t think anyone predicted that.

Day 4: “Protect Ya Neck”

The two meaningful games played out early on Friday. While UVA-UNC certainly had implications Friday night, Florida State vs. Maryland and Duke vs. Georgia Tech were elimination games of sorts.

Having seen Miami relegated to spoiler status the night before, Florida State fans arrived early to soak in their team’s first ACC Final since 2011 when they lost to No. 1 seed UVA. The last two years had seen lower seeds battle it out for the title, though.

Pool play rewards the stalwarts, but they still have to win.

FSU stood to gain the least from pool play. They trounced UNC only to play a Maryland team that had not lost in two months in, effectively, an elimination game since Maryland already boasted a win as well. The pool of death left the No. 2 seed in peril despite doing exactly what they were supposed to do.

Allowing four runs in the 3rd didn’t help. Florida State couldn’t muster a run through seven innings and despite a three-run 8th, they watched Maryland trot off the field with a championship berth. The Top 2 seeds were gone in 24 hours, and the likelihood  of excitement rested on UNC. If they won the night game, Maryland still had to best them to win the pool. If UVA won, local fans had little to watch and even less to cheer for.

As we learned throughout the tournament, what the fans wanted did not matter. Despite being a de facto nighttime home game for UNC, UVA held them off in a 3-2 win that sealed Maryland’s inclusion in the championship. In the afternoon tilt, Georgia Tech shut out Clemson behind a combined effort from Dusty Isaacs (5 IP, 1H) and Sam Clay (4 IP, 3H), keeping Duke from clinching the other championship spot.

Day 5: “I Can’t Go to Sleep”

If Duke won the early game, at least the local crowds would show up — even if just to cheer against the most local team. But if Miami won? We got Georgia Tech vs. Maryland — a battle of low-seeded, out-of-town teams with much to lose. Either way, the 11 a.m. game proved to be the only one worth watching. The other two would really be placeholders, during which I could catch up on much-needed rest.

Even during the most exciting elimination game of the tournament, I had baseball-weariness. At 74 degrees on a Saturday, the baseballs looked like tiny meteors against a bright-blue sky. The cheerleading dopes in the stands shouted nothingness into a void. My hands struggled to grasp my bottle of water. They don’t serve beers at college events, you know. You gotta smuggle or die, and I was dying slowly — etch out a notch in my already battered tombstone.

The tournament suffered from these long lags. The players’ chests sagged against the dugout fences and the fans moved in timed intervals to the slow pace of the game. Day 5 moved like this. Game 12 moved like this. The Miami press members cheered vehemently, disregarding the unwritten rules of press-box life, but no one had much to cheer. The score sat at 4-2 for what felt like two hours.

Duke stared down the barrel of their final two outs before Cris Perez — a freshman in the midst of a drought — hammered a two-run homer into right. Ninth-inning heroics have this legendary status, and every fan wants to be there for that game that explodes into extra innings and disarms them with athletic prowess. But at this point, it was hard to care.

And the extra innings really just set the table for more North Carolina disappointment, adding to the already long day. The games had been ending at 11 p.m. or so, but adding an hour to the first game only meant a morning finish to the press box. Other than the Duke writers, audible groans echoed throughout the upper sections — the servers and stat guys, the writers and photographers, the announcers: We were all in this together.

Duke lost in grand fashion and we arrived at our end game. Georgia Tech vs. Maryland. We made it. Only, we had two more games to watch. But I didn’t, right? I really needed a day off to re-flood the engines and end a manic, two-job week. I could have used the sleep, but I looked at my weary comrades and I soldiered on. I sat through 6-plus more hours of baseball. I made a rap mix. I sent Snapchats of bored players being weird. I talked to other, humorless sportswriters. Most of all, I waited. I left for a short while to snag some beers before the night game. UNC won a crazy (and long) one, 13-7. Florida State won 6-4 in an unremarkable matchup of pitchers slated to go in the first round of the upcoming Major League Baseball draft. Midnight came. My weariness had never left.

Day 6: “Triumph”/ “Can It Be That It Was All So Simple

Georgia Tech won. It would be more advantageous to describe the events first or at least provide a spoiler alert, but, really, Georgia Tech rocked Maryland from the very start of the game, and pulled away late in a sloppy game between two tired teams in front of a sunburned, delirious crowd of die-hards.

Thomas Smith and AJ Murray delivered early and often with three sets of back-to-back hits.

Tech, the No. 9 seed, won four games and played five out of six days to earn both an ACC title and an NCAA berth. They won as the highest seed to ever win it all, breaking their own previous record (a No. 8 seed in 2012).

As they dogpiled one another and ESPN analysts clamored to get anchorless sports quotes, I already had one foot out the door. Six days, 15 games, 15 “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” choruses, hundreds of ’80s pop classics, hundreds of innings, thousands of pitches, long, weary innings, tired choruses of “Sweet Home Alabama,” announcers doing their damnedest to keep us interested, crowds of dopes screaming at the top of their lungs to change a game they have no control over — I needed to get home, lay down and block out the chatter.

Still, watching an underdog take an ACC title never really got old. The near-perfect weather still mystified and inspired me. Sitting in the stands with the crazies or roaming the press box with the paid folks reminded me how baseball works at every level.

I just don’t need to be reminded again for a long, long time.