The chances have officially run out.
As the revelation of the NCAA Tournament’s 2021 field approaches, Pitt baseball is far from a lock. A late-season skid knocked the Panthers from the ranks of those safely in the field and left them with work to do this past week in the ACC Tournament.
A win against North Carolina in the preliminary round earned one more meaningful game in May, but Pitt’s run at a conference title was abruptly ended on Thursday night by a familiar foil. And now the Panthers’ hopes of ending a more than two-decade long NCAA Tournament drought rests on their past work.
NC State downed the Panthers by a final of 3-2, their fourth defeat in as many games at the hands of foes from Raleigh this season.
“It was a beautiful game of baseball,” Pitt head coach Mike Bell said. “We just happened to come up on the short end of it.”
It was a dramatic event that, because of an 12-inning marathon between Georgia Tech and Louisville, was delayed and didn’t wrap up until shortly before midnight on Thursday. The two starting pitchers — Matt Gilbertson for Pitt and Reid Johnston for NC State — dueled late into the night.
For Pitt, Gilbertson’s performance fails to be adequately described by “gutsy”.
Each of Gilbertson’s nine innings and 134 pitches on Thursday night were crucial and astounding. When he ended the eighth inning by striking out the ACC’s leading hitter, Jonny Butler, his pitch count sat at a season-high 119. Most would assume at that point that his night was over, but the energetic right-hander never wavered.
Most of the time, pitchers who want to stay in a game against the wishes of their coach need to beg and plea for one more inning, one more hitter. But on Thursday night, Gilbertson retained the reins by sheer will. He believed Pitt was “playing for its season” on Thursday night.
Postgame, when asked whose decision it was to let him return to the mound for the ninth, his or Bell’s, Gilbertson was assertive.
“When we came in from the eighth, I didn’t give him a choice,” Gilbertson answered. “I was going back out for the ninth.”
He struck out the side on 15 pitches in the final inning.
Gilbertson said postgame that, while his arm had yet to feel the full wear of an astronomical pitch-count figure, his body was tired and sore from top to bottom. It didn’t help that the game became tighter with every pitch thrown.
There was so much on the line for the Panthers. With an NCAA Tournament berth far from secure, they entered this week in Charlotte needing to stack wins. They left with just one.
Now, with no more games guaranteed in the 2021 season, all Pitt can do is wait. Selection Monday is three days away, and the Panthers will spend that time wondering, hoping that that a 1-8 record over their final nine games will be overshadowed by an impressive body of work built largely in the pre-COVID shutdown half of their schedule.
But whether a trip to the regional stage is in the cards for this team, 2021 has been one of the most successful seasons in program history. Competing in one of the most difficult conferences in the country, the Panthers hung in the top-25 for nine weeks before a two week layoff due to COVID-19 protocols.
Bell said that his team would return to Pittsburgh that night, take a day off on Saturday and do some light recovery work on Sunday before sweating out Selection Monday as a team. These next three days won’t be an unusual experience for the veteran Bell. He’s been around this sport long enough to know what the waiting game is like.
“It’s going to be tough,” Bell said. “And I’ve done this long enough to know that. 2007, I’m a young coach in the SEC, and we’re one of those teams that’s [on the bubble]. We go out and beat Vanderbilt in game one of the SEC Tournament and everybody’s like ‘Oh you’re in’. … But you really don’t know until the dust settles.”
Nothing is guaranteed, but their showings this week at Truist Field combined with an impressive tally of wins accumulated mostly before their mid-March COVID shutdown will likely be enough to keep them in the field. The Panthers’ 26-year streak of postseason absences appears to be on its last legs.
— Mike Rooney (@Mike_Rooney) May 28, 2021
Yes I do. Pitt should be fine. https://t.co/5n0vCICsk3
— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) May 28, 2021
Despite a bitter end, this trip to Charlotte was not without gain for the Panthers. They regained some of the confidence that had been lost during the seven-game skid which capped the regular season and rediscovered a meticulous, patient brand of baseball that allowed them to lean on their stars.
In two games, sophomore infielder Sky Duff and junior designated hitter Ron Washington Jr. delivered clutch hit after clutch hit, set up by well-executed small-ball from the rest of the order.
“Ron Washington Jr. continues to do his thing, hitting the ball hard in key situations.” Bell said. “Everytime I turn around, Sky Duff’s on base. But It’s a grind to play in this conference.”
The pitching efforts were Herculean. On Tuesday against North Carolina, junior ace Mitch Myers threw 89 pitches of 2-run ball on just four days’ rest and senior reliever Chase Smith surrendered only one run during his longest outing of the season. On Thursday, Gilbertson’s heroics almost toppled one of the hottest teams in the sport.
And so Pitt marches on into the final act of an up and down season, one in which it will try to reaffirm what they know about themselves. That the early season’s success was not a fluke. That all the milestones they’ve hit — a program-record seven ACC series wins, a 17-11 record vs. the RPI top-50 and highest ranking in school history — are indicative of a program renaissance, instead of just a flash in the pan.
Bell was confident that his team’s work will be rewarded when the 64 postseason contestants are revealed on Memorial Day at noon on ESPN2.
“We’ve played the season we could play,” Bell said. “That’s more league games than we’ve ever played and a top-25-ranked schedule. We’ve put together a great resume against teams that I know are going to be in the field. … I told them, I was proud of them for what they did this season. … We’ll head back and let the dust settle and see what we can do.”