Bill Hass on the ACC: A New (and Old) Perspective on the ACC Baseball Championship
May 20, 2009
By Bill Hass
It’s nothing new for coaches to say that the conference tournament in their sport is wide open.
In the case of this year’s ACC baseball tournament, that seems to be true.
Two new faces have cracked the lineup of usual suspects participating in the event, which begins today at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Duke and Boston College each made the field for the first time since the format was changed to include only eight teams instead of everyone.
“Our energy level is great and they’re excited about playing in the tournament, no doubt,” Duke coach Sean McNally said. “It’s a really positive step. There are 12 teams and eight make it, then you look around and say ‘who are we going to jump over?’ The league is so deep and so competitive.
“Before you can talk about and make it to the tournament every year, you’ve got to make it first. It was a major hurdle, as much mentally as anything else. It’s a big one for our guys.”
The Blue Devils (15-15 ACC, 34-22 overall) are the No. 7 seed and will play in Division B. Their opener comes in the last of today’s three games, against No. 2 North Carolina at 8 p.m.
For the Tar Heels (41-14, 19-10), making the tournament field has been a given. But that doesn’t mean they take it for granted.
“It’s important, it’s one of our goals,” said coach Mike Fox, whose team won it in 2007. “This is such a great league, to say you’re the regular season No. 1 seed or the tournament winner, I think that’s a big feather in anybody’s cap.”
As in other ACC championships, the winner gets the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. As deep as the ACC is, it’s likely that the top six seeds – Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia, respectively – will receive bids regardless of how they fare this week.
But the NCAA will be watching the results closely.
(“Doing well) puts you in a great spot in terms of being a regional host and a national seed,” Fox said.
In other words, going 2-1 in round robin play or at least making it to Sunday’s championship game enhances a team’s chances of hosting a regional and super-regional. Going 1-2 or 0-3 could hurt.
As for Duke and BC, they’re likely “on the bubble,” to borrow the basketball term, to make it to the NCAA. Their surest way in is to win the ACC Championship.
“We finished 15-15 (in ACC play) and had great series wins against Carolina and Georgia Tech,” McNally said. “In a league that’s as deep and as good as our league, I think we’ve got a great (NCAA) resume going in and we’ve been playing really well down the stretch.
“I think what we do in the tournament will either help us or hurt us, but I think our body of work is pretty good. I’ll let the (selection) committee sort that out. We feel we need to play well and continue to make a statement. We feel we made one against Georgia Tech (winning two of three in series last weekend). Over 30 games, we’ve been really good in the ACC.”
ACC coaches talked all season about the great parity within the league. That’s reflected in the final standings. Florida State finished with the best league record, 19-9, and North Carolina was 19-10. That’s more losses than usual for the teams at the top.
“The one thing that stuck out for me was you didn’t see a lot of sweeps all year,” McNally said. “The teams are more evenly matched. I think the elite teams are still elite, I just think that the other teams are getting a lot better and in a three-game series you have a chance to be more competitive.”
That was certainly the case with Duke, which won at least one game in each of the 10 ACC series it played, including taking two of three from the Tar Heels in March.
“We feel the same way we felt going into every ACC series all year – we’ve got a great chance to win and we’ll have to be at our best to do it,” McNally said. “If we’re not, we won’t be successful. I think our outlook will be very positive and it should be, based on what we’ve done over the course of the year.”
Duke is an experienced team with a specific formula for winning – sound defense (only 43 errors in 55 games), solid starting pitching and timely hitting.
“Another club may get away with one area or another, but we need all three to win.” McNally said.
Just because North Carolina has more experience in the tournament doesn’t necessarily translate into an advantage.
“You could be saying the other team is inexperienced and won’t approach it the right way,” Fox said. “But I just don’t see that happening with Duke. I think Sean will have his kids ready to play, I think they’ll be excited to play, excited to be in the tournament, excited to be in Durham and I think they’re going to give us all we can handle. Hopefully, not more.”
Regardless of the outcome, each team will play a total of three games in its division. The two division winners with the best round-robin records will play for the championship Sunday.
The possibility of a fourth game can mess with a pitching rotation. Both coaches said they would go with their regular weekend starters in the first three games. That means Duke’s Christopher Manno (5-5) will face North Carolina’s Adam Warren (6-2) tonight.
Both teams have a day off Thursday. Duke will pitch Andrew Wolcott (8-3) against Clemson Friday and Eric Pfisterer (3-2) against Virginia Saturday. North Carolina wil throw Alex White (7-2) against Virginia Friday and Matt Harvey (6-2) against Clemson Saturday.
Both coaches said their Championship Game pitcher, if needed, would be “TBA” – to be announced.
“We’ll see what we can piece together,” McNally said.
Fox likes the way his team is playing coming into the tournament. In their final series, the Tar Heels dropped the opener to Boston College but won the last two games. That should give them some momentum.
“You’ve got to play very well, get great pitching and some really clutch hits, possibly even two-out hits,” Fox said “It takes your best baseball of the season the win this thing.”
One possible edge for both teams will be playing the tournament in their back yard.
“I think it helps, knowing our guys are sleeping in their own beds,” McNally said “We’re not worried about hotels and meals and scrambling around, so from that extent it certainly helps a lot.
“You stay in a much more normal routine than you can on the road. How that will play out, I don’t know, but I think it helps us, especially being our first tournament, with a lot of logistics that go on. That’s a big break for us.”
Big enough to help one of the tournament’s new faces pull off the upset and win it all? That will be determined over the next five days.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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