South Carolina rocks UNC to even series
CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina used stellar pitching and the nation’s highest-scoring offense to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and won a series of exhilarating late-inning games to advance through the postseason.
None of that was on display Sunday. Instead, junior Hobbs Johnson had the worst start of his career, UNC was shut out for the first time all season by South Carolina’s Jordan Montgomery, and the Gamecocks handed the Tar Heels their worst loss of the season, 8-0 at Boshamer Stadium.
The best-of-3 super regional series is now tied 1-1 entering today’s decisive game (7 p.m., ESPN2).
UNC was in a winner-take-all game last Monday when it beat Florida Atlantic 12-11 in 13 innings to take the Chapel Hill Regional. The Tar Heels also won 14- and 18-inning games en route to the ACC Tournament title, and beat South Carolina 6-5 in the series opener Saturday on a ninth-inning single.
“We knew this wasn't going to be easy,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “Our last 2-3 weeks hasn’t been easy.”
The Tar Heels (56-10) haven’t lost back-to-back games all season, but the Gamecocks (43-19) are 8-1 in NCAA elimination games since 2010, and 34-5 in the tournament overall.
UNC will start sophomore Benton Moss (8-1, 3.78) today, while South Carolina will send out its third straight lefty, freshman Jordan Wynkoop (7-3, 2.92).
Johnson and Montgomery were a combined 22-3 in 47 starts entering Sunday, but only one starter saw that success continue. Mixing fastballs in and changeups away, the South Carolina sophomore allowed four hits and one walk in his first career complete game.
“Obviously the key to the game was Montgomery,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “He was sensational for them from the first pitch to the very last one.”
Montgomery (6-1), who threw eight shutout innings last year in a College World Series start, has allowed two earned runs in 30.2 career innings in the NCAAs.
He didn’t let a runner to reach third base and even pitched around three errors.
“Usually when you make three errors against a team like North Carolina they are going to make you pay, but Jordan was just too good today,” said Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook, a former player and assistant coach at UNC. “He was terrific.”
The Tar Heels did put two runners on with two outs in the fifth, one out in the sixth and two outs in the eighth. But they were stranded on a fly out by Parks Jordan, a double-play grounder by Skye Bolt and a foul pop by Colin Moran, respectively.
Freshman Landon Lassiter – one of three righties in UNC’s lineup – went 2-for-4 but the Tar Heels matched a season-low with four hits.
Meanwhile, Johnson (4-1) allowed a career-high five runs in 1.2 innings, the shortest start of his career, and saw his ERA balloon from 2.09 to 3.12.
“It was just terrible,” said Johnson, who was drafted in the 14th round by the Milwaukee Brewers Saturday. “I wasn't locating balls up in the zone, and with a good hitting team, this is what's going to happen.”
Johnson gave up a two-run double on a hanging slider to Joey Pankake and a two-run single on a 1-2 pitch to LB Dantzler as the Gamecocks took a 5-0 lead in the second inning.
South Carolina scored three more times in the fourth and fifth innings despite getting just one hit, an infield single, as relievers Reilly Hovis and Taylore Cherry issued five walks and a hit-by-pitch and Moran committed an error at third base.
That left UNC facing an 8-0 deficit after five innings, and Montgomery ensured there would be no comeback this time.
"He was so good today, so it doesn't matter how resilient you are,” Fox said.
Five of UNC’s nine previous losses had been by just one run, and its worst previous defeat was 10-4 to No. 6 national seed Virginia.
Fox said the good thing about such a blowout loss is he didn’t use his top three relievers – Trent Thornton, Chris Munnelly and Chris McCue. South Carolina also didn’t use its top relievers Sunday because of Montgomery’s complete game, meaning both teams should have fresh bullpens heading into today’s elimination contest.
“We haven't really accomplished anything or won anything,” Holbrook said. “We’re not in a position where we can feel too good about ourselves. We have nine innings to go.”