We've seen Jameis Winston close out a ninth inning, Florida State break a losing streak spanning almost three years and North Carolina's formerly impenetrable armor get scuffed. And that was only one game.
The first two days of the 2014 ACC baseball tournament have been expectantly stellar, with nail-biting outcomes and spectacular individual performances again helping the conference place itself among the nation's best.
As group play continues Thursday afternoon, expect the hierarchy to begin establishing itself. Florida State and Miami are the two top-seeded teams, but their first games came with wildly different results.
The Hurricanes were upset by Georgia Tech, the lowest-remaining seed in the entire event. Florida State, which had lost its seven prior ACC tournament games, came out with a muscle-flexing victory over the Tar Heels. With Miami in action against a game Clemson team that narrowly edged Duke on Wednesday, the nightcap should be fit for primetime.
Georgia Tech will try to continue its surprising run against Duke. The Yellow Jackets would all but end the Blue Devils' tournament with a second straight upset. Virginia and Maryland will also square off in their first tournament game, having sat out each of the first two days.
In all, each in the trio of games should have a high intensity level. Let's take a quick look at each contest and throw in a prediction to make things fun (and for me to look stupid Thursday night.)
|3||Duke vs. Clemson||Clemson, 5-3|
|4||Miami (Florida) vs. Georgia Tech||Georgia Tech, 6-3|
|5||Florida State vs. North Carolina||Florida State, 7-1|
No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 6 Maryland, 11 a.m. ET (WatchESPN)
The Cavaliers and Terrapins are playing in their first game thanks to a scheduling quirk. It probably still won't help Maryland defeat a Virginia team that enters the ACC tournament with national championship aspirations.
Despite being the third-seeded ACC squad, the Cavaliers are actually the highest-ranked team in the conference by nearly every poll. Virginia has the nation's highest RPI and sits third in the NCBWA, USA Today and Baseball America standings. Only the Collegiate Baseball poll ranks Miami (Florida) ahead at the moment.
It's not hard to see why. The Cavaliers boast perhaps the nation's best all-around pitching staff. Their 2.24 team ERA is seventh nationally and led by co-ACC Pitcher of the Year Nathan Kirby. It is unclear whether Kirby will start Thursday or be saved for Virginia's upcoming pool matchup against Florida State. Defeating the Seminoles is the obvious priority given their status within the conference, but it's hard to do that without getting off to a good start.
Still, Virginia can go down the line with top-tier starters. Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz are both very capable of coming in and tossing seven solid innings. Brian O'Connor, recently named ACC Coach of the Year, has an enviable problem picking an opening starter.
O'Connor's lineup is a little closer to OK than dominant, which could make for a low-scoring game. The Terrapins send out ace Jake Stinnett, whose 6-6 record does not do enough justice for his performance this season. Stinnett boasts a 2.53 ERA and has been a steadying force in Maryland's rotation each of the last two seasons. The Terps have a solid 3.21 ERA as a team.
Given that these two teams did not see each other in the regular season, we're looking at a more interesting matchup than what it seems on paper. It just isn't enough for anyone to bet on Maryland to pull the upset.
Look for Mike Papi and Co. to come through with just enough run support to help push Virginia to a 1-0 start.
Score Prediction: Virginia 4, Maryland 1
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech, 3 p.m. ET (WatchESPN)
When they say anything can happen in a one-game setting, I think they were talking about this Georgia Tech team.
The Yellow Jackets have pulled off surprising victories in each of their first two games, first playing themselves into the tournament and then upsetting top-seeded Miami on Wednesday. Down 3-1 heading into the seventh inning, Georgia Tech scored five runs in the last three frames in a result that left most in Greensboro shocked.
Miami allowed 14 hits, including four alone from Ryan Peurifoy. It was the second time in three years Georgia Tech's program has knocked off the No. 1 seed in its opening game—the only two times that's happened in tournament history.
“I thought it was an outstanding college baseball game,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said, per the ACC's official website. “I said it yesterday—it seems like every game in this league is very hotly contested and usually comes down to somebody getting a two out hit."
The Blue Devils were on the opposite spectrum. Clemson pulled away in the ninth inning with two game-icing runs as Duke's comeback rally fell shy. While an upset when it comes to seeding, it wasn't much so to those in attendance. The teams were minimally separated during the regular season and the Tigers have a myriad of high-profile talents on the roster.
That said, the loss puts Duke in a precarious position. The Blue Devils still have a meeting with top-seeded Miami upcoming. They will need wins in each of their remaining games and for Miami to top Clemson later Thursday to have a shot at taking the conference title.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes and Tigers will be cheering for Duke. Georgia Tech is two more wins away from a Cinderella run. And even if the seeding is not in their favor, it's impossible to count out the Yellow Jackets at this point. Until they lose, you ride the hot hand.
Score Prediction: Georgia Tech 6, Duke 4
No. 1 Miami (Florida) vs. No. 5 Clemson, 7 p.m. ET (WatchESPN)
Here is one of those test cases for momentum, talent, motivation and where they all lie together.
Clemson is a talented baseball team coming off a big win and no doubt seeing a reeling Hurricanes squad and sensing its moment. Should they beat Miami, the Tigers will have only an exhausted Georgia Tech team standing in their way of the ACC Championship Game. It's a far different trajectory than most figured for a team that could have gone 0-3 without much embarrassment—this conference is just that deep.
Every Miami player should be angry. The Hurricanes no longer control their own destiny and have only themselves to blame. It's a flaw in the round-robin format and an indicator that every game must be played like it's the championship. Few in the Hurricanes clubhouse could have expected Georgia Tech to come roaring back. We already covered how historically anomalous that loss was.
“Baseball is a game you have to play nine innings and no clock to run out, so you have to play it all out until the end," Miami coach Jim Morris said, per the ACC's official website. "(Georgia Tech) did a good job to keep battling.”
So the motivated team versus the one with momentum. The talent versus the underdog. A whole heaping pile of narrative tropes used by sportswriters for years all rolled into this weird bun of a pool-play college baseball game.
And then you remember baseball is a (mostly) individual sport masquerading as a team sport. One player's motivation can lead to a 4-for-4 outing, while another the Golden Sombrero. If Mr. Motivation is hitting ahead of Mr. Sombrero, the former probably isn't getting driven in. The same goes for the underdog who thrives in the increased spotlight and the one who folds.
Just a reminder: during last trip to Greensboro in 2012, #Canes lost Game One and made Sunday's Championship Game - see you tomorrow!— Hurricanes Baseball (@CanesBaseball) May 21, 2014
When predicting a baseball game (unless Georgia Tech is involved, apparently), it's best to look at the collection of players and assess which is the best. Unequivocally, that's Miami. Better teams are better because they have better players. (I know, revolutionary, right?)
The Hurricanes have the bats and stable of arms strong enough to come back to earn a championship game berth. Expect them to start that question Thursday night.
Score Prediction: Miami (Florida) 8, Clemson 3
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