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#STINGDAILY: Hitting The Mother Lode

May 13, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

There was a mother of a ball game in Russ Chandler Stadium on Mother’s Day, and it went well beyond the delirium that enveloped the place when Zane Evans’ single scored Kyle Wren in the 11th inning to push Georgia Tech past No. 1 North Carolina – again.

Plenty of drama preceded the winning play in the Yellow Jackets’ 9-8 victory, their second walk-off win as Tech took two of three games and handed the Tar Heels their first series loss since the Jackets topped UNC in Chapel Hill last April.

Some ominous pretext came even before the first pitch on Senior Day.

The Jackets (32-20, 14-13 ACC) have been scuffling for more than a month while losing three straight weekend series and four of the last five. The Tar Heels (45-6, 20-5) have been boot-stomping just about everyone. UNC entered the week leading the nation in scoring (422 runs, or 8.8 per game) and third in ERA (2.32).

Add the facts that Tech trailed 7-1 in the middle of the sixth and 8-3 in the middle of the seventh you had ogres sitting atop the Jackets.

So, yeah, this outcome – on ESPN3 – felt pretty darned good.

“Any time you take down No. 1, and this is back-to-back years . . . it’s definitely a huge win,” said Daniel Palka, who tied the game with a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth – when the Jackets scored three times. “It turns a lot of things around.”

The Jackets surely hope so.

After taking two of three from UNC again (Tech has beaten the Tar Heels in six of the past eight meetings), Evans said it felt familiar – kind of like the vibe the Jackets had in last year’s ACC tournament when they became the first No. 8 seed to win the thing.

In this series, as in that tournament, Tech did what it had to do no matter how unconventional.

It certainly was not in the pre-game script for Palka to move from right field to pitch a one-two-three eighth inning in just his fourth appearance (all in the past eight days and six games). Nor could anyone have predicted Evans moving from catcher to the mound to retire nine of 10 batters faced in three shutout innings.

Not only is three innings a long time, but Evans blew his two previous save chances.

And coach Danny Hall’s road map for success did not call for Tech pitchers prior to Palka and Evans — all guys who do not play other positions, you know, full-time pitchers – to walk eight and hit four batters in the first seven innings.

Still, the Jackets battled, and their nine runs were the most allowed by UNC in an ACC game this season. They’d allowed more than four just once in conference action all season before the Jackets won 5-4 Friday and 9-8 Sunday.

Oh, and Tech shut out the nation’s highest-scoring outfit over the final four frames in both those games. 

“There was a different atmosphere in the dugout,” Evans said. “I feel like right now it’s the same mentality we had going into [last year’s] ACC tournament. Whatever needs done, we’re finding a way to do it.”

It would be nuts to offer a blow-by-blow account of this game because that would take as long as the game – four hours and 31 minutes.

You had 434 pitches (236 for UNC) thrown by 16 pitchers (eight per team), 20 walks issued (11 by UNC), six hit batters, just one home run – by Tech shortstop Mott Hyde – at least half a dozen outstanding catches in the outfield, 30 runners left on base (18 by Tech), perhaps 50 visits to the mound by UNC catchers and coaches . . . and two very good predictions by Palka and Evans on the game-tying and -winning hits.

Hyde’s two-run homer in the seventh pulled the Jackets within 8-5, but even that inning left a weirdly hollow feeling. With one out, the next three hitters reached base, but the Jackets left the bags full as Brandon Thomas struck out and Evans flied to left.

“Our offense has been a little off . . . but the potential is always there for us to score that many runs,” Palka said. “I felt like we had time to chip away. You kind of looked at their dugout, and looked at our dugout and we had a little bit of swagger going.”

Hyde, whose homer was just his third of the season yet his second of the series after Friday’s game-winner, started the ninth with a walk.

Freshman designated hitter Matt Gonzalez singled, and after Thomas Smith grounded into a fielder’s choice, Wren was hit by a pitch.

Thomas hit into another fielder’s choice to drive in a run, but the Jackets were down to their last out and down two runs.

Evans had to that point not had a good day at the plate. He was hitless in five at-bats with two strikeouts. Yet his single scored Gonzalez and Tech was within 8-7.

Up came Palka, the slugger.

The first pitch Chris Munnelly threw, Palka ripped to right. Tie game. Quote the big fella, “I was sitting on a slider, and it was a first-pitch slider.”

Sam Dove soon ripped a ball that turned UNC leftfielder Parks Jordan all kinds of ways as he raced back before settling/tripping under it to end the inning.

Evans was in command on the mound, where his grittiest inning was the 10th.

The leadoff hitter, UNC junior third baseball Colin Moran, has a shot at becoming just the fourth player in NCAA history to lead the nation in RBI (he has 78) and runs (65). He’s hitting .385 and knows well what he’s doing with a bat.

A power hitter (13 home runs), he has drawn 50 walks, and struck out just 12 times.

Until he led off the 10th, that is, and Evans caught him looking at a gnarly pitch that caught the black. The left-handed hitting third baseman looked stunned after K No. 13.

“I wanted to bust him in, just pound the strike zone,” Evans said. “I didn’t want him to get his hands extended, and then with that last pitch I came with a back-door slider. That was probably one of the best pitches I threw all day.”

Two outs later, UNC first baseman Cody Stubbs – who has 65 RBI — sent Wren to the warning track in left for the final out.

Evans also set the Tar Heels down in order in the 11th.

UNC’s Mason McCullough then walked Wren and Thomas, and the Jackets were in business with nobody out in the bottom of the frame as Evans and Palka – Tech’s top run producers – were due up.

“I felt like if I had Zane bunt and gave them an out, they’d walk Palka and I wanted one of those two guys with a chance to win it for us,” Hall said.

After a pitching change, Reilly Hovis’ fifth pitch, a 2-2 offering, was on its way. Evans had never faced him. Hovis, a freshman, was making just his 12th appearance. Tech’s catcher/pitcher had, however, seen the scouting report.

“I knew he had a pretty good slider and a fastball,” Evans said. “I had been getting a steady diet of sliders all day. I was looking for a slider, and I got it.”

A hard-hit ball bounced between third base and shortstop, and UNC leftfielder Parks Jordan charged. From second came Wren, Hall wind-milling all the way.

“I probably shouldn’t have [sent Wren], but I knew he’s my fastest guy and if they make a great throw, they make a great throw,” the coach said.

Jordan’s throw was good but for the fact it pulled catcher Korey Dunbar partially into Wren’s path. The ball arrived at virtually the same instant as Wren – all about six feet up the third-base line from the plate.

There was contact. 

The ball kicked away; the catcher didn’t catch it. Wren caught the edge of the plate by reaching back for it.

Game over.

It wasn’t conventional, but it counts like any other win – except it felt like much more.

Then again, maybe the Jackets have a new map that includes their top run producers  throwing shutout ball to sew things up. Palka picked up the win Friday, you know, and Evans got it Sunday.

“We just keep battling, and we needed to today,” Hall said. “We beat a very, very good team. They’re on top of our league for a reason . . . Zane had pretty much said he didn’t think he could throw any more. I’m glad we ended it right there.

“It means a lot, it’s huge . . . but I think our goals are much higher than just making the [ACC] tournament. We need to have a good week [Tuesday against Georgia and this weekend at Miami], and then hopefully we can go into the ACC tournament hot.”

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