Pittsburgh Panthers roar past UNC Tar Heels into ACC Baseball Championship semifinals

Durham, NC – From No. 12 seed to Atlantic Coast Conference Baseball Championship semifinalist.

That’s how the storyline reads for Pitt – so far. But after turning the tournament’s Pool A bracket upside down with Wednesday night’s 5-4 win over top-seeded North Carolina, head coach Joe Jordano’s Panthers hope to write even more exciting chapters in a few more days.

Pitt (29-25), playing in the ACC Championship for the first time, has captured Pool A with one-run wins over Georgia Tech on Tuesday and UNC on Wednesday night. The Panthers now have a date in Saturday’s 1 p.m. semifinal against fourth-seeded Duke or fifth-seeded Louisville.

UNC Baseball Tar Heels stand for the national anthem at the Durham Bulls Ballpark.
photo by Gene Galin

The Tar Heels (37-18) still have a tournament game remaining versus Georgia Tech (31-26) on Friday at 3 p.m., but both of those teams have been eliminated from semifinal contention.

UNC baseball coach Mike Fox meets with players on the pitcher’s mound.
photo by Gene Galin

Trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh of Wednesday night’s game, the Panthers tied the game on a one-out double by Chris Cappas and plated what proved to be the winning run on Cole McLaren’s sacrifice bunt that scored Caleb Parry from third.

Pitt outhit the Tar Heels 10-5, but pitching and defense made the real difference for the Panthers. Reliever Derek West (3-4) closed the game with five innings of brilliant relief, holding the Tar Heels hitless while walking one and striking out three.

West got plenty of defensive help, particularly from centerfielder Frank Maldonado and rightfielder Connor Perry. The pair combined for at least five highlight-reel worthy plays, including the final out of the game.

UNC football coach Larry Fedora and UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham watch the Tar Heels play in the 2018 ACC Baseball Championship. Photo by Gene Galin.

UNC football coach Larry Fedora and UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham watch the Tar Heels play in the 2018 ACC Baseball Championship.
photo by Gene Galin

With UNC’s would-be tying run at second base, Brandon Riley lined a shot to deep center that appeared to have a chance of at least hitting the wall. But Maldonado made a running, leaping grab to end the game and send the Panthers pouring onto the Durham Bulls Athletic Park field in celebration.

And that wasn’t even his top play of the night.

With UNC up 3-1 in the top of the third and the bases loaded, Jackson Hesterlee tagged a deep high drive that appeared destined to send home at least three more runs. But Maldonado made the catch on the dead run and managed to hold onto the ball as he crashed into the wall. The Pitt senior appeared momentarily shaken up, but finally made to his feet and jogged to the dugout.

Just for good measure, Maldonado led off the bottom of the third with a two-base hit that eluded a running try by UNC’s Riley, and then scored on David Yanni’s second double of the game to trim the Tar Heels’ lead to 3-2. Nick Banman followed with an RBI single to tie the game.

The Panthers clearly weren’t going away. And they still haven’t.

Pitt Post Game Interviews

JOE JORDANO: That was a heck of a baseball game. You know, the one great thing about this league is that you know every night is going to — every night has potential to have big drama either way, and you saw that tonight play out. We did some really good things defensively. Might be an understatement. I thought we got off to a rough start on the bump but settled in, had some great timely hits, and obviously a spectacular play by Frank to really close out the fifth inning for us.

But it was a great win for our program. I’m very proud of our guys. They worked very hard. They stayed focused, had some great at-bats, and we played some blue-collar baseball today, which is what we are all about.

Q. Frank, it seemed to us watching from the stands, press box, that the entire game changed after your catch. Did you feel — did you and your teammates feel in the dugout a momentum change after that point?
FRANK MALDONADO: I just had that comment made to me by Dave Yanni. He said once I made that catch, he knew we were winning the game. But to be honest, I was having a hard time figuring out where I was after I made the catch, so that was my primary concern. But yeah, I think anytime you have a big play like that where somebody really shows a good amount of effort, it just kind of reinforces everyone’s belief that this is possible, and I think one thing I’ve learned throughout this season is the power and the value of such belief. We have such belief in our locker room amongst each other, so much trust in each other when we’re in situations, trust in our coaching staff that they put us in the best position to be successful, and it’s just something special, and I’m unbelievably lucky to be a part of it.

Q. Frank, in that fifth inning, it was bases loaded, perhaps game on the line right there, you’re tracking the ball. Do you know where you are and where the wall is, and then just talk about advancing to the semifinal on Saturday.
FRANK MALDONADO: Yeah, my defense is something I’ve always taken great pride in. It’s something we work really hard on at Pitt as outfielders with Coach Alvino. The number of reps we take allow you to go into the game feeling extremely confident and really comfortable, and even at the end of the game, we’re constantly talking in the outfield, almost joking around, like saying stuff like watch this play I’m about to make, stuff like that, and it keeps it light and it keeps guys wanting the ball, and I think that’s — part of the success — part of the way you can be successful as an outfielder is wanting the ball and wanting to make those great plays and expecting them to happen, because it’s just like seeing it in your mind and then it happens, and it’s just — you’re not surprised by it. It’s awesome.

And advancing into the semifinals, you know, a lot of people may be surprised. We had talk in the locker room, talk on the bus, the plane ride here, that we were here to win this thing. We’ve got a group of guys, again, with incredible belief, incredible trust in each other and the coaches, and people may be surprised that we’re here, but we’re not, and people may be surprised that we won the first two games. We’re not. We’re accepting all challenges ahead of us, and we’re ready to take this thing.

Q. Where does that catch rank for you as far as your career? Take it back to tee ball if you want to. And the second part of the question was what exactly was the injury after you made that catch because you were on the ground for a while?
FRANK MALDONADO: In terms of personally, I just told my mom and dad when I was walking off the field, I said, that was the most fun baseball game that I’ve ever been a part of. So I mean, as a highlight in that, just having that play be a part of this game gives it so much more meaning for me personally. You know, this is my last go-around at Pitt. I’ve loved every bit of it, and there are other guys on my team that are dealing with the same thing, whether being seniors or expecting to be picked up in the draft. It’s just something special, and I think that’s why that’ll rank No. 1 without question.

What was the second question? Oh, the injury? You know, that happened at another point in the season. I ran into the wall against Georgia Tech. No injury. We’re a blue-collar team. You know, running into the wall is nothing.

Q. Really for both you guys, I feel like people talk about your power arms, something that really stands out about this team. Does that give you guys a lot of belief heading into a tournament like this, like we can shut these guys down with these big arms we’ve got?
JOE JORDANO: I think any team is going to really concentrate on pitching and defense. I mean, that gives you an opportunity to win any game. And this is the first year in a couple of years that we’ve been healthy for the most part. And that really provided us some depth on the mound that we knew that if we could get, especially with Matt in our rotation, that he was going to chew up six to seven innings of a 27-inning weekend. So we didn’t particularly look at it as Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We had to play it out as 27 innings, and how are we going to fill those innings. So we felt if Matt could do his job and then fill in with Hammer. We’ve had several different guys in those rotations, Derek, who was phenomenal tonight. I mean, you’ve got a guy coming in out of the pen, throws five innings, doesn’t give up a hit. You know, that’s a great job.

In that situation, and technically he’s a freshman, this is his first year pitching in college.

So when you look at that, we knew that those arms when they’re on can beat anyone. We’ve been clicking a little bit better from the offensive perspective, and the entire year we’ve played really well defensively. So you put all those three things together, when you have the good pitching, the defense, and you get those timely hits, we can beat anybody.

Q. Derek tonight, what made him so good in your opinion, and how have you kind of seen him develop over the course of the season in his first year at this level?
JOE JORDANO: I think Derek has — he’s very — as you can probably see, he’s kind of mechanical out there. And he’s working through that. He’s a very analytical young man. But he’s really done a good job taking a little bit off his pitches and keeping it in the zone. When that breaking ball works, and he lost a feel for it early in the year, and he’s been trying to develop a changeup, but the fastball has some life on it, and it’s downhill. So he has some depth to it. It’s a tough pitch to hit. It’s heavy. So when he’s around the zone, he’s pretty good, and you saw that today.

Q. Joe, it probably looks like a negative that you had to play two games the first two days, but now does it become a positive that you’ll have two days off, you can rest your bullpen and possibly even get Matt back for the weekend?
JOE JORDANO: Yeah. I mean, this worked out really well. I mean, we knew coming in, as Frank mentioned, we came down here to win. We felt that we believe in ourselves. We believe in what we do and how we do it. Our approach to the game of baseball is very simple. We practice it and talk about it every day. You know, so when you have back-to-back games, it’s not unlike going into a series, so you’re used to playing three days in a row. But now in this type of format, obviously it’s going to benefit us by having a couple of days off before we play again. That rests the bullpen. I thought RJ lost his legs a little bit later in the game today. Threw okay, but was having some difficulty.

Q. Frank, first of all, your at-bat coming off that catch, I think it was right after you made that catch, you’re woozy, you go up there, hit a double and it kind of jump-starts the offense. How were you feeling, and what do you remember about that at-bat?
FRANK MALDONADO: I just remember coming out of the dugout, getting a little last piece of advice from Coach Alvino on the steps about our approach going into the at-bat, and again, like Coach Jordano said, we keep things really simple. I went up there with a plan. Fortunately I saw what I was looking for on the first pitch, was able to execute it and get the inning going.

But aside from that, one other thing. We’ve been chosen last in this conference — this is going back to the belief I’m talking about. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned from college baseball it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

Q. Coach, the squeeze, what were you thinking heading into that situation, and can you walk us through your strategy there?
JOE JORDANO: Sure. By the way, I’m not sure if everybody is asking how Frank felt after that catch. I don’t know if anybody noticed my run out to the outfield, and the third baseman from North Carolina says, hey, is everybody okay. I said, are you talking to me? That was a long run for me, all right. But thank goodness he was okay.

You know, it’s funny, a very good friend of mine sent me a text message, and if you don’t believe me, I’ll show it to you on my phone. He said he had a dream that we would win today on a suicide squeeze, and I’ll show it to you. Name is Greg Morris, one of my fraternity brothers, been a friend for 30-some years. There was no hesitation. As soon as Caleb got to third base, I said, Caleb, we’re going. And I immediately gave the sign, and he looked at me, and I said, first pitch. I figured we were going to get a fast ball, especially to Cole, and he did a tremendous, tremendous job getting the bat on the ball. But there was zero hesitation. That was the right situation, the right scenario, and it’s crazy that he sent me that text message and I had the opportunity to play it out in real life. It’s pretty neat.

UNC Post Game Interviews

Q. What did they do to keep you off balance like that?
MICHAEL BUSCH: Well, first and foremost, they were pounding the zone and we knew coming into this game that they had some arms that they needed to use to kind of get us off balance and kind of throw fastballs by us in some at-bats. But we knew that, and I’ll give it to them, they pounded the zone, and they were ready to pitch, and I wouldn’t say that we weren’t ready to hit, but I think the pitchers just pitched very well tonight.

Q. Michael, do you feel like you guys left some runs out there early and kind of gave them a little incentive?
MICHAEL BUSCH: Yeah, I mean, like Coach said, that catch from Maldonado in center was a huge catch, obviously. Three runs for sure, maybe even more, that inning, and then we had some other hard balls hit. Brandon Martorano with two guys on, right at the second baseman for a double play. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it. But I felt we had good at-bats tonight, and some things just didn’t go our way. But it is what it is.

Q. Michael, can you just talk about not getting a chance to advance on? You have another game, but you won’t be advancing on to the semifinal. Just talk about how devastating this must be for the team here.
MICHAEL BUSCH: Yeah, I mean, we had a goal to win this tournament, and first we got to take care of Georgia Tech on Friday. We’re going to wash this one away pretty quick and worry about that one. But you know, it’s a smaller goal for us. We have bigger goals for us in the future, looking ahead to next weekend. But first we’ve got Friday, and then we’ll go into next weekend and worry about that.

Q. How will you guys approach that game on Friday as far as keeping whatever mentality you have to have so you can get some type of momentum going into that bigger picture that you’re speaking of?
MICHAEL BUSCH: Yeah, I mean, some people might think it’s going to be a tough game for us, just because it’s away, and you can’t really do anything about it. But I think we have a group of guys that are going to go out there and compete like we always do, and I don’t think it’s really going to affect us that we can’t move on to the semis or the finals. I think we’ll go out there and compete just like we always do.

Q. What are the biggest takeaways from this game that you can kind of, I guess, conjure up, whatever is necessary to win, and when you get to the NCAA Tournament if you’re fortunate enough?
MIKE FOX: Well, you’re going to play close games. You’re going to have guys on base. You’ve got to get a big hit. For us, I mean, we just — when we don’t play defense, we have a hard time winning. I mean, you can look at the box score and only see five hits, and that’s not good enough, either, but we had some good at-bats. You have to look at the walks, you have to look at the 3-2 counts. Just got to give them credit. They stepped up there and got a base hit after a couple walks, and we didn’t. It’s just baseball. It’s part of it.

But we don’t make a couple plays in the outfield, we don’t field a bunt, we have a passed ball, just probably five or six things that — the takeaway from our team is we can’t do that. You can’t do that in a regional game or you’re not going to win.

Q. Coach, strategy-wise, how do you plan on approaching Friday’s game?
MIKE FOX: We’re going to approach it like we do every game; we’re going to do everything we can to win. We’ll throw Luca Dalatri. He needs to pitch. And we’ll see — we’ll get him back on the mound, which was a goal of ours in this tournament is to get him another outing before next weekend. So there’s a silver lining to that.

It’s like Michael said; the tournament is what it is, and format is what it is, and you can be out in one game, like a number of teams already are. I don’t believe in meaningless games. I think everything — we have a lot to play for in my opinion. We’re going to be facing, I think, probably the best — one of the best pitchers in the league Friday, so we’ve got a tough task coming up.

Q. Michael, this team has talked a lot about having a chip on its shoulder and a little bit of an edge because of the way last season ended. Do you see a way that the top seed losing to the 12th seeded team and not being able to advance because of that may add to that or affect that type of mentality going forward?
MICHAEL BUSCH: Maybe a little bit, but I think there’s enough from last year that — I mean, we’ve got enough guys coming back from last year that are ready to kind of prove a point from that last year’s loss. So I mean, we’re going to come out guns blazing against whoever we play next weekend. Like I said, first we’ve got to take care of Georgia Tech on Friday. But we’re definitely excited for kind of revenge next weekend.

Q. What was the dugout like after the game, and what did you say to the team as you move forward?
MIKE FOX: I haven’t talked to the team yet. You never talk to the team right after a loss. You wait. Time is good. Take a shower if you can, whatever you can.

Yeah, I mean, it is what it is. It’s not the end of the world. We get to keep playing, and we get to keep being together. We get to practice tomorrow, work out tomorrow. We’ve got a game Friday. I mean, two years ago we were all somewhere else, so we didn’t even make the tournament. Everybody was home and the lockers were empty. So we’re going to look at it on the bright side here, and we’ve got another game or two to play, and I love being around this team, they love being around each other, so I’m glad we’re continuing to play. That’s what I’ll say to the team.

Q. Mike, why do you think Pitt has flown under the radar this season or really in their five years in the league?
MIKE FOX: I don’t think they’ve flown under the radar. I think — I mean, that’s some good arms, and they had — they threw good arms against us at our place. I thought we were really fortunate to win. And in a game like this, we knew they were coming in — I don’t know how to pronounce his name. But you’ve got a guy throwing 95, 96, and then they bring West in. That’s what we did. It’s kind of a crazy game. It’s one game where we’re all throwing our best arms. They’ve got some good players, and they competed hard, and I thought they — I think Joe does a great job. He’s been at it a long time. He knows what he’s doing.

You know, I said out loud, this is a good time for them to squeeze here. Before it actually happened. And then I didn’t do anything about it. It’s me going — if I’m out there, this would be a pretty good time, even though the infield is in, and you’ve got to give him credit. It’s a great call on his part, and obviously they executed it well.

Q. You stretched Hiatt out tonight. Do you feel like he kind of ran out of gas there at the end?
MIKE FOX: Yeah, and we thought we could do that with him. We didn’t really have a pitch count in mind. I mean, it’s been a while since he’s thrown. He was kind of teasing us there at the end, 3-2 count, and you get a strikeout there on a pitch in. You know, I thought he was terrific. Josh is — he’s really good. He can strike guys out, and yes, he probably got tired. I’ll have to — I have to go back and look at that and say, yeah, well, maybe one batter, two batters. That’s part of what we do.