For the first time since the Atlantic Coast Conference expanded more than a decade ago, the “Big Four” of Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest are all competing in the ACC baseball tournament.
The 2017 edition of the tournament features another first with its venue being at Louisville, Ky. The event has been in Durham or Greensboro every year since 2009, but was moved this year due to the controversial House Bill 2. It will return to Durham next year.
The schedule for the baseball tournament was released on Sunday, featuring an expanded format with 12 out of 14 teams making the field this year set to compete in four, three-team pools. Pool play is a round-robin format and the pool winners will meet in a single-elimination bracket on Saturday. If all three teams finish with a 1-1 record in pool play, the team with the best seed advances.
Pool play begins on Tuesday at Louisville Slugger Field, a minor-league ballpark in Louisville, giving the top-seeded Louisville Cardinals (46-9) a bit of a home-field advantage.
UNC (44-11), the No. 2 seed, and N.C. State (33-22), the No. 7 seed, are in Pool B together and are scheduled to play at 7 p.m. on Friday.
The Tar Heels and Wolfpack have had quite the battles in the postseason over the years. The squads played 12 innings in 2012 and an 18-inning marathon in 2013, which resulted in a 2-1 UNC victory.
They met again in 2014, with UNC earning a 4-3 win that helped the Tar Heels boost their NCAA tournament hopes.
N.C. State freshman Brad Debo, brother of UNCP baseball player Nick Debo, leads the Wolfpack in hitting at .344 and shortstop Joe Dunand is third in the league with 16 homers. N.C. State has won 13 of its last 15 games.
The Tar Heels are led by ace J.B. Bukauskas, who was voted the ACC pitcher of the year by the league’s head coaches.
Bukauskas leads the conference with a 1.87 ERA, is third with 106 strikeouts, and finished the regular season with an 8-0 record. Ashton McGee earned freshman of the year honors, leading the team with a .339 average with six home runs and 39 RBIs. The Tar Heels placed four players on the all-ACC first team.
Wake Forest (38-17), earning its most regular-season wins since the 2002 season, is the No. 3 seed and opens pool play, in Pool C, on Wednesday against Georgia Tech (27-26).
Gavin Sheets leads the Demon Deacons, who placed a league-best nine players on the all-ACC teams. Sheets leads the conference in home runs (19) and leads the nation with 77 RBIs. Teammate Johnny Aillo is second in the league with 18 dingers. The Demon Deacons are led on the mound by ace Parker Dunshee, who has nine wins on the bump this season.
Duke (28-27) rounds out the “Big Four” as the No. 9 seed, and in Pool D. The Blue Devils open play against Clemson (39-17) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
Sophomore Griffin Conine, who earned a spot on the all-ACC second team, leads Duke in slugging percentage (.571), on base percentage (.437), RBIs (56), triples (2), home runs (13), total bases (117) and walks (40) over the course of the regular season.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.