CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Skye Bolt came to the plate around 6:32 p.m., Saturday, some four hours after his teammate Hobbs Johnson threw out the first pitch to the series finale between two of college baseball’s elite teams.
To this point, No. 2 North Carolina and No. 7 Virginia had provided enough drama and fireworks over a three-day span to last a season. A surprising rout on Thursday. An incredible, division-clinching comeback on Friday. A marathon on Saturday.
Naturally, it had to end with one last thrill.
At 6:34, UNC’s Bolt, with his team trailing 8-6 with Tar Heels at the corners in the bottom of the 11th inning, drove a 1-0 David Rosenberger pitch that had game-winner written all over it. UVa catcher Nate Irving thought it was gone. Cavalier first baseman Jared King feared another gut-wrenching loss.
But Mike Papi, the left fielder, traced Bolt’s shot to the wall and grabbed it at the base of the scoreboard.
“Close,” Papi said of its chances of leaving the yard. “Probably about five or six inches.”
The sophomore then whipped the ball into the infield to easily nab Carolina’s Michael Massardo, who never thought about tagging up, at first base.
Double play. Game over. Virginia wins 8-7.
“That’s one of those special wins right there,” said Virginia coach Brian O’Connor, “that you figure out how to get it done on the road. I’m just really, really proud of our guys.”
Friday night, the Wahoos (45-9, 22-8 ACC) blew a three-run lead in the eighth inning and fell 8-5 before a rowdy sellout Boshamer Stadium crowd. Less than 24 hours later, the setting was similar and the result was nearly the same.
Yes, UVa had a 4-1 edge when it took the field in the eighth inning. By the end of the ninth, it was tied at 4. Freshman pitchers Nathan Kirby and Josh Sborz had given up three crucial runs.
North Carolina (47-8, 21-7), the ACC Coastal Division champs because of Friday’s rally, was threatening again to break the Cavs’ hearts.
A loss would have ruined a solid start from junior right-hander Whit Mayberry (one run on five hits in five innings) and taken away a series win UVa likely deserved.
O’Connor’s offense came to that realization in the top of the 11th when it put across four runs on three clutch hits, including a two-RBI triple from freshman John LaPrise and a run-scoring single from fifth-year senior Jared King.
“I was just looking for a good pitch to hit,” said LaPrise, who got the start at shortstop because of a minor injury to Kenny Towns that pushed Nick Howard back to third base. “Everybody had big at-bats that inning, so I was just looking for a good pitch to hit — and I got it.”
It was LaPrise’s only knock in four at-bats. It gave UVa a 7-4 lead. King’s only knock in six at-bats pushed the advantage to 8-4.
“That just speaks to the quality of teams that we have here,” King said. “Even though we put up a four-spot there in the 11th inning, they come back and have a shot to win it. That’s how important every one of these plays can be.”
North Carolina made the final frame stressful for Rosenberger, a rookie lefty, with a Mike Zolt leadoff single followed by a Parks Jordan single. A Chaz Frank fielder’s choice grounder to second, which retired Jordan, pushed Zolt to third.
Suddenly, the Tar Heels’ Friday magic was beginning to creep back.
Landon Lassiter, who went a scorching 10-for-14 in the series, then reached on a Howard throwing error. Zolt scored. 8-5.
Colin Moran, the likely ACC Player of the Year, then singled to score Frank. 8-6.
Bolt entered the dish next boasting a series batting average of .077.
Within moments, his weekend struggles were an afterthought.
“He put a great swing on it,” Irving said.
“I thought it had the height, I thought he hit it well,” King said. “You were just praying for a breeze at that point.”
Instead, the Wahoos got Papi.
“I was just going back to the wall and just hoping that it was going to stay in,” Papi said. “And it did by a few inches.”
Lassiter tagged from third and scored. Massardo, pinch-running for Moran, didn’t from first.
“He was gone off the bat,” King said. “I knew there was one out, but as soon as I saw Papi get ready to jump, I was just trying to look out the corner of my eye. I saw him around third base.
“So as soon as Mike jumped, I was just screaming at [second baseman] Reed [Gragnani], ‘One-one-one.’ He had plenty of time.
“I still don’t think that kid knows Papi caught it.”
But he did. The end of the double play made for an easy final out to a challenging, yet rewarding series for the Cavaliers.
“Last night was as difficult of a loss as you could possibly have,” O’Connor said. “I think a lot of people maybe would have expected our team to come in here and lay down. We did not. We came here to win, and I think that’s a great quality that this team has.”
UVa will be the third seed for the ACC Tournament. The Wahoos will play sixth-seeded Virginia Tech on Wednesday or Thursday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The start time is TBA.