With two unlikely contributors playing key roles, Georgia Tech defeated N.C. State in a semifinal game at the ACC tournament Saturday night and will play for the conference championship Sunday.
Michael Guldberg’s three-run home run and Jonathan Hughes’ 5-1/3 innings of scoreless relief helped lift the No. 2-seed Yellow Jackets to a 9-2 win over No. 3-seed N.C. State in the semifinals of the ACC tournament.
The Jackets, who were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division to start the season and are now ranked as high as sixth in the country, will play No. 5-seed North Carolina at noon at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Tar Heels defeated No. 12 seed Boston College 13-5 in the first semifinal.
Prior to this week, Tech had lost seven consecutive ACC tournament games over the past three years.
“We didn’t want it to end,” Hughes said. “We wanted to keep playing. Tristin (English) preached right before the game, (he) was saying, ‘Hey, we’re only guaranteed next game. Let’s play and get another one.’ We want to play with each other. This is a great group of guys. We want to keep going, so I think that means a lot.”
The Jackets will play for their 10th ACC title – which would tie Clemson for most in league history – and their first since 2014. Coach Danny Hall, who was named the conference’s coach of the year for the fourth time Monday, has been at the helm for five of them.
The Jackets took two of three from the Tar Heels in a series at Russ Chandler Stadium in early April. The likely starter for Tech is Cort Roedig, who has started eight games this season and has an ERA of 5.67.
Tech will have the unusual opportunity to win the ACC title by beating the conference’s three teams in the Research Triangle in Durham. Tech beat Duke in a pool-play game Friday to advance to the semifinal, its first time out of pool play since 2014.
Guldberg’s home run, lifted over the left-field wall in the bottom of the fifth put the Jackets up 4-1. Home runs are not his strong suit – it was his first of the season, on his 198th at-bat. His blast, off a 2-1 pitch from starter Jason Parker, put three across in an inning in which Parker had retired the first two batters before Nick Wilhite and Luke Waddell kept the inning alive with a single and walk, respectively.
“It felt great,” Guldberg said. “It’s been a long season, and I haven’t popped one out of the ballpark yet. But it just felt good to find the barrel and see it go over.”
Hughes, meanwhile, came through with perhaps his finest outing of the season. Entering the game with a 5.68 ERA and a .322 opponent batting average, Hughes took over for starter Keyton Gibson in the top of the fourth with the score tied at 1-1 and two on and two out.
Hughes induced a groundout, and then held the Wolfpack to one run over five innings, tying for his longest outing of the season. The junior has had an up-and-down season and, in his most recent appearance, was hit hard by Notre Dame in Tech’s first pool-play game on Wednesday.
But Hughes was exactly what the Jackets needed Saturday, going long out of the bullpen and enabling Hall to save most of his bullpen for Sunday’s final. Hughes was at his best in the bottom of the eighth. With two on and two out and the tying run at the plate, Hughes caught Tyler McArthur looking for an inning-ending strikeout.
“You can hear the (N.C. State) fans going, ‘Bullpen,’” Hughes said. “That doesn’t do anything but fire me up. Hearing that, I really said, ‘Dig in, finish the game, finish this inning and just focus up.’ The biggest thing was for me to focus.”
The tension came undone in the next half inning, as the Jackets sent 11 men to the plate and scored five runs as the Wolfpack bullpen melted down. Up 9-1, Hughes came out for the ninth, getting the first two outs before giving way to Jake Lee, who recorded the final out for the Jackets.
Tech was in a tough spot from the start. N.C. State pitched its Friday-night starter, Jason Parker. Having used regular starters Connor Thomas and Amos Willingham its two pool-play games and with Friday-night starter Xzavion Curry recovering from a shoulder injury, the Jackets turned to Gibson, who had started one game this season.
Further, while the game was ostensibly a neutral-site game, the crowd was awash in Wolfpack red, with only speckles of gold.
But the Jackets, playing clean defense and benefiting from Hughes’ and Guldberg’s standout performances, had Wolfpack fans heading for the exits well before the final out. Gibson himself stood in the breach for the Jackets. Gibson got himself in trouble in each of the first four innings, putting on the leadoff man in each, but managed to turn the game over to Hughes in the fourth with only one run allowed.
“I said that in the locker room after the game that Keyton for sure, early, made pitches to get us out of trouble when he needed to, and so did Jonathan,” Hall said. “N.C. State is a really good team. They’ve got a lot of guys that can hit over there. So to just limit them to two runs, six hits – can’t say enough about the way everybody pitched.”
Hall said after the game that, after the Jackets beat Duke on Friday to make the semifinal, pitching coach Jason Howell told Gibson that he might be the starter against N.C. State.
“And Keyton looked at him and said, ‘I want the ball,’” Hall said. “So when somebody tells you that they want the ball, I’ve been around this game long enough to know that you might want to give it to them because they’re pretty determined to put their teammates on their back and go compete.”
With the win, Georgia Tech appears to have locked down a top-eight national seed for the NCAA tournament, which begins next weekend. The Yellow Jackets began the game with an RPI of No. 8 and inches up one spot to seventh with the win on a neutral site (ostensibly, anyway) over RPI’s No. 19 team.
In the past five years, 31 out of 35 power-conference teams that were in the RPI’s top eight at the time of the selection of the field earned top-eight seeds.