DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — The Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament is back in central North Carolina after a year away, and three of the league’s top teams could claim home-field advantage.
North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke have spent much of the season near the top of the ACC’s divisions, and they’re among the favorites for the tournament that starts Tuesday. The Tar Heels (37-17) hold the No. 1 seed, with the third-seeded Wolfpack (40-14) and fourth-seeded Blue Devils (39-14) also in the top four.
“I don’t want us to be the afterthought,” UNC coach Mike Fox joked.
“It is good for college baseball, and it’s not that I have to say that,” he added. “It really is. If all four of us (including East Carolina of the American Conference) were able to host (an NCAA Tournament) regional, that’d be something. As close as all of us are together, that would be a first. So we’ll see how that plays out. I’m just concerned about one of those four schools right now.”
The ACC moved last year’s tournament to Louisville, Kentucky, in response to a North Carolina law that restricted the rights of LGBT people, but began returning its 2017-18 championship events to the state after the law was rolled back last April. The tournament will be held at the Triple-A Durham Bulls’ ballpark for the 11th time and the sixth time since 2009.
Those three local schools are plenty familiar with it: Duke played most of its home games at the park while North Carolina played there twice — including one matchup with N.C. State.
The Tar Heels and Wolfpack have long been powers in college baseball, with UNC reaching the College World Series 10 times and N.C. State becoming a regular host of NCAA regional tournaments, and one of the key storylines of the ACC season has been the Blue Devils’ emergence as a third challenger in the Triangle. Duke matched the school record for victories and is a lock for just its second NCAA Tournament appearance since 1961 during what coach Chris Pollard called “what is in a lot of ways a historic season.”
Other things to watch this week at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park:
EYE ON THE NCAA
Barring an unlikely title run by a lower-seeded team, the ACC could be looking at its fewest total of NCAA Tournament teams in a decade. The ACC has placed at least seven teams in the 64-team tournament field every year since 2008, and had 10 two years ago. It’s looking like only six will make it this year — but five of those could host four-team regionals.
It’s been quite a month for Florida State coach Mike Martin. The Gastonia native set the Division I record for victories on May 5, then was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Now he returns to his home state looking for his eighth ACC Tournament title and second in a row. The sixth-seeded Seminoles (39-17) enter after winning two of three in a final series against N.C. State that Martin called “about as good as it gets.”
Among the players who could find themselves as early picks in the upcoming MLB entry draft are Clemson first baseman/outfielder Seth Beer and Georgia Tech catcher Joey Bart. Bart led the league with a .368 batting average and hit 16 home runs — three fewer than Beer’s league-leading total. Bart (.651) and Beer (.636) rank 1-2 in the conference in slugging percentage.
The 12 teams will be split into four three-team pools, with the winners of pool play advancing to the single-elimination semifinals on Saturday. Those winners play Sunday for the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
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