Jackets falter in ACC baseball championship

Georgia Tech's Luke Waddell (7) throws to first base during the ACC baseball championship game against North Carolina Sunday, May 26, 2019, in Durham, N.C.

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Georgia Tech's Luke Waddell (7) throws to first base during the ACC baseball championship game against North Carolina Sunday, May 26, 2019, in Durham, N.C.

After two energizing wins on consecutive days with contributions from across the roster, Georgia Tech could not summon the same Sunday. On a warm, clear afternoon with the ACC tournament championship on the line, the No. 2-seed Yellow Jackets fell to fifth-seeded North Carolina, 10-2, at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

“A tough one for the Jackets (Sunday),” coach Danny Hall said. “Just felt like (we) got outpitched, outhit. They made a couple nice defensive plays early on and we just didn’t have any answers for them.”

Tech’s bid for a 10th ACC tournament title — which would have tied with Clemson for most in league history — fell short as its offense was stymied and its relief pitching was battered by the Tar Heels. With Hall dipping deep into the bullpen for Tech’s fourth game in five days, North Carolina generated nine runs on 11 hits off five Jackets relievers, including four home runs. They hit two two-run bombs in the top of the sixth off Luke Bartnicki and Jake Lee, breaking open a game that was tied 1-1.

With the bullpen, “we were kind of hoping that we could kind of sneak through it a little bit,” Hall said. “It just didn’t happen. When we made mistakes, they made us pay.”

It was a dismal end to a thrilling week for the Jackets, particularly their walk-off 5-4 win Friday over Duke to advance to the semifinals and then Saturday's 9-2 semifinal win over N.C. State in front of a crowd packed with Wolfpack fans. But on Sunday, with the title on the line, a team that was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division before the season and is now ranked as high as sixth nationally fell for just the fifth time in the past 24 games.

“I would say that we’re getting better, obviously, as the year’s gone on,” All-ACC first baseman Tristin English said. “We started off good, we were consistent the whole year and here, toward the end, we needed to win four in row. We won three in a row.”

On top of the bullpen’s struggles, Tech was unusually quiet at the plate. The ACC’s leader in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, the Jackets scraped out only four hits, two of them with two out in the ninth when the championship T-shirts were practically being handed out.

UNC relievers Hansen Butler and Joey Lancellotti permitted just one Tech base runner between the fourth and eighth innings, on a walk.

“Overall, they just kept us kind of off balance — in, out, up, down,” English said. “It was kind of hard to find your stride there as a team when they’re keeping you off balance like that.”

Tech (41-17) will now wait to learn its NCAA tournament assignment Monday. A top-eight national seed, which would keep the Jackets at home in the regional and super-regional rounds (if they advance out of the region, which they haven’t done since 2006, the last of their three College World Series appearances), is at least a good possibility.

Ranked as high as 13th nationally, North Carolina (42-17) celebrated its seventh conference championship before a heavily pro-Tar Heels crowd. It was quite a turn for the Tar Heels, who lost their final two ACC series of the regular season.

The game raised again questions about the capacity of Tech’s pitching staff — which has been shortened by the season-ending Tommy John injury to No. 3 starter Brant Hurter and the shoulder injury that has sidelined No. 1 starter Xzavion Curry — to make it through an NCAA regional weekend.

Tech did get strong contributions at the tournament from Amos Willingham, Keyton Gibson, Jonathan Hughes and English in the first three games. Sunday, starter Cort Roedig got the game into the fifth inning and was charged with one run allowed.

“I was proud of what he did,” Hall said of Roedig, a freshman.

The bullpen, however, couldn’t keep the game close. While Hall had been considering using Curry this weekend, he said Sunday that he ultimately decided to rest him as a precautionary measure and that he expected him to pitch at some point in the regionals. It’s also likely that the Jackets, if they stay in the winner’s bracket, won’t have to go as far into the bullpen.

“Now it’s important that we get rest and then just get mentally and physically ready to go out next weekend against whoever it is we’re going to be playing,” Hall said. “But we have everything right in front of us that we set out to do at the beginning, and we look forward to that opportunity.”

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