GREENSBORO – If N.C. State baseball coach Elliott Avent felt like kicking a dog after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to Carolina, he didn’t have to go back to Raleigh to do it.
Two “bat dogs” work the games at NewBridge Bank Park, home of the 2014 ACC Tournament — Miss Babe Ruth, the 8-year-old grande dame of a black lab and her two partially trained successors, Miss Lou Lou (Gehrig) and Master Yogi (Berra), who is still in spring training.
Miss Babe was on duty during the play-in games of the tournament, picking up bats after hitters leave the box and bringing out baskets of new baseballs to the umpires. So Avent had any number of opportunities to take out his frustration on the canine coworkers.
Avent apparently was testy before the first pitch, keeping his starting lineup a secret almost until the 11:10 game time. He was obviously trying to make UNC coach Mike Fox guess whether he would start his ace lefty Carlos Rodon in a game that was pretty much do-or-die for either team.
The loser was going home, and State, with a worse RPI than the Tar Heels, was probably going home for good. Carolina could have lost and retained slim hope of an NCAA Tournament berth. It didn’t take long for Avent to leave his dugout for the playing field, something he did periodically during the sunny afternoon at the home of the Class 1A Greensboro Grasshoppers (Marlins) farm team.
In the first inning, Avent engaged the first base umpire who snuffed out a Wolfpack rally by calling clean-up hitter Andrew Knizner out even though the throw seemed to pull UNC first baseman Alex Raburn off the bag. Avent was pleading, palms up, to no avail.
In the fifth inning of a game that already had all seven runs scored, Avent was much more in the face of the home plate umpire after State’s All-ACC shortstop Trea Turner tried to steal home on a throwback from UNC catcher Korey Dunbar to pitcher Reilly Hovis. Turner took off from third base and appeared to beat Hovis’ throw back to Dunbar, but was called out. Avent was in the ump’s space and his face for longer and more emphatically this time, almost refusing to leave the batter’s box that Miss Babe had tidied up.
Finally, while the Wolfpack kept loading the bases in the late innings, failing to score the tying or go-ahead runs each time, Avent argued a check swing strike three call by stepping out of the dugout and staring down the man in blue. By that time, he probably figured his season had gone to the dogs and top draft choice Rodon would never pitch for State again.
Meanwhile, Miss Babe was still doing her dog duty, picking up bats with her chops and bringing them back to the dugout area. It was a hot day, so she took an inning off here and there to cool down under the grandstand. Once she returned wearing an official ACC bat dog vest.
“I wish I had a dollar for every bat she’s picked up,” said Grasshoppers President Donald Moore, who had dog duty on this day. “She’s made guest appearances at Wake Forest and Carolina and been in a lot of parades.”
Miss Babe was ejected from one game in her career, when she mysteriously wandered across the third base line and did her business right there between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. The ump gave her the “get that dog off the field” thumb while the grounds crew scrambled to clean up her mess.
State and Carolina weren’t slated to play this season because of ACC expansion, and the non-conference game they had scheduled on tax day was washed out. So the teams that met six times in 2013 found themselves in the ACC’s 7-10 play-in game for a chance to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
It was a weird day overall, with Rodon playing the whole game as State’s designated hitter but not as one of six Pack pitchers, and Carolina starting its best reliever in Hovis and having its ace starter Trent Thornton record the save by keeping State from scoring in the eighth and ninth innings despite two errors by shortstop Michael Russell on the same play.
A Tuesday crowd of almost 6,000 came out to see the Red and Blue play after a season of relative disappointment for both teams. UNC’s Skye Bolt tied the game in the second inning by hitting a bolt into the sky over the right field wall, and the Tar Heels scored three more times as State kept loading the bases while failing to punch across the tying run.
The Wolfpack, a preseason top-10 pick, watched its season end before the dog days of summer while the Tar Heels lived to have Miss Babe fetch their bats for three more ACC tourney games, beginning Wednesday night at 7 against Florida State. Win one, and the Heels are probably back in the NCAAs for a longshot return to the College World Series.
However, Miss Babe’s owners said this is likely her last season, as long as Miss Lou Lou is ready and proves she can control herself between the baselines. As for Master Yogi, he won’t pick up an official bat for a while.
“He’s a project right now,” said his owner, smiling.