The Virginia Tech Hokies will take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in Sunday's ACC Baseball Championship, a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line for whomever walks away on top.
Virginia Tech, the No. 6 seed, went 3-0 in pool play and have known themselves to be playing in the championship for quite some time. UNC, on the other hand, while also 3-0 in pool play, was up into the wee hours last night, playing an ACC tournament-record 18-inning game against N.C. State last evening.
Whether the fatigue factor comes into play—though the smart money predicts that it will—remains to be seen for sure. What isn't up for debate is the vitality of the following three players, who could well determine the fate of the ACC this season.
SS/3B Chad Pinder, Virginia Tech
After missing the ACC tournament in his first two seasons, Pinder recounted what this time of year used to be like for him. "It was terrible" he told the Roanoke Times of his underclass experience during tournament time. "I couldn't even watch it on TV."
Helping his Hokies reach this big stage for this first time in his career, Pinder has made the most, in a big way, of his opportunity. Batting out of the three-hole in Virginia Tech's lineup, the junior shortstop has been the tournament's star since Day 1, when he went 3-for-5 with two homers and six RBI against Virginia.
Since then, he's gone 3-for-6 with another homer and two RBI—good for a three-game average of .545, with three HRs and eight RBI.
The Hokies' unanticipated sweep of Pool B makes a little more sense now, huh?
What's scariest about Pinder's outburst is that offense is usually his weakness, not his strength. He's regarded as one of, if not the consensus top defensive third basemen in the 2013 MLB draft (he's projected to move to third as a pro), and someone who's projected to go high in spite of questionable discipline at the plate.
If his bat continues catching up to his glove, Virginia Tech might not be the only beneficiary; Pinder's personal draft stock could soar in the process.
1B Cody Stubbs, North Carolina
Assuming that last night's game was an aberration for any and all batters, it is worth noting how good Stubbs has been in the tournament.
In the Tar Heels' first two games, the fifth-hitting corner infielder went 8-for-15 with five RBI. And last night, after an entire game of scoreless extra innings, he broke the tie between UNC and N.C. State with an RBI single in the top of the 18th.
Stubbs is a big, powerful hitter who's equally adept at hitting the long-ball and hitting for average. Coming off a long, hard night, it will be imperative to get some runners on base and cause some chaos for the better-rested Hokies.
Stubbs is UNC's best bet of creating said madness.
RP Clark Labitan, Virginia Tech
Labitan was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Watch List this year (h/t HokieSports.com), and it isn't hard to see why. The swarthy side-armer from San Diego baffles opposing hitters with his unorthodox motion, which makes him, typically, a rock at the end of games for Virginia Tech.
But that wasn't the case in the Hokies' second tournament game, where a costly mistake almost cost them a victory. Leading Florida State 2-1 in the top of the ninth, Labitan inherited an admitted jam from starter Brad Markey but wasn't able to pitch out of it. Pinch hitter Josh Delph singled off of the Hokies' reliever, scoring the clutch, tying run and putting Virginia Tech's second win in jeopardy.
Fortunately, Labitan was bailed out by Mark Zagunis' walk-off homer in the bottom of the frame. He even walked away with a win! But to see the brilliant closer shrink on a big stage was a little unnerving.
Labitan responded well against Georgia Tech, retiring four straight en route to a clutch save (see video above). In a game as close as this one should be, Labitan might be counted on to recapture that performance.