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Tar Heels catcher playing with heavy heart after friend’s death, but finds solace on field

June 18, 2018 GMT

The news of his good friend’s death ripped through his soul Saturday morning, just a few hours before he was set play in the biggest game of his college career.

Yet Brandon Martorano never considered sitting out.

The North Carolina catcher had just been told that he lost the buddy who was at the center of seemingly each of his Little League memories.

The teammate who never had a bad day, who always showed a genuine interest in others, who could always get a laugh. The roommate who made freshman year so fun, even on the days when he would accidentally sleep in and Martorano had to find ways to make enough noise in their crammed dorm to disrupt his snoozing friend.

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Martorano was stunned Saturday.

Zach Attianese, a 20-year-old pitcher who played for UNC in 2017, and his dad, Jude Attianese, died in a car crash just outside of Detroit late Friday night.

But Martorano has been steamrolled by heartbreak before. What he has found is that baseball — even if it’s just temporary — can numb the emotional pain.

So he was going to play in Saturday’s College World Series opener. He had to.

“Baseball for me has always been like a saving grace,” Martorano said Sunday morning. “Whenever I’m going through something tough, I could always just fall back on the game of baseball. … That’s always been my whole life. Baseball’s just been a therapeutic sense for me.

“It was helpful to be surrounded by my teammates and my coaches, to just go out there and play the game in (Zach’s) memory, and in memory of his dad.”

That’s why Martorano suited up in North Carolina’s 8-6 win over Oregon State.

And he will continue to do with the Attianese family in his heart.

He had written a few tributes in black ink on his light blue ballcap by Sunday morning. There were the initials of Zach and Jude Attianese. The numbers Zach wore at UNC (No. 39) and during his days growing up in New Jersey (No. 49) were etched on the bill.

The date of the crash — “6.15.18” — was on there, too.

Martorano also wanted to honor his grandfather, who died May 28. His hat also has Carl Martorano’s initials and his nickname, Poppa.

“I lost my grandfather at the start of regionals. Now this,” Martorano said. “It’s been really good to have my teammates to fall back on. To be out there with them have been a nice little healing thing for me.”

For 4 ½ hours Saturday, he got to focus on competing.

He framed fastballs and curveballs behind the plate. He didn’t get a hit, but he drew a walk, was hit by a pitch and reached on an error. He scored twice.

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But maybe his best moment came in the eighth inning.

Oregon State, appearing to pick up some momentum down 8-6, put its leadoff man on. Martorano spotted Cadyn Grenier inching too far off first base and fired a laser in time for Michael Busch to apply the tag and record the out.

UNC coach Mike Fox called it the “biggest play” of the game.

That made Saturday feel somewhat normal for Martorano. But afterward, he was thinking about Zach and Jude Attianese.

“Him and his dad, they’re like a second family to me,” Martorano said. “This is going to be really tough.”

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