Back to Omaha!
North Carolina recent run of five College World Series trips from 2006-11 had been relatively uneventful, as the Tar Heels had lost just once in 26 games on the way to Omaha.
That all changed this season. Despite being the NCAA’s No. 1 overall seed, the Tar Heels needed to win a 13-inning elimination game against Florida Atlantic to make it out of the regionals, and were pushed to another winner-take-all contest in the super regionals by South Carolina.
That decisive third game came Tuesday at Boshamer Stadium, and true to form, UNC took the hard road. Its starter didn’t make it out of the third inning for the third game in a row and a dropped fly ball with two outs gifted the Gamecocks two runs.
But once again, the Tar Heels persevered. UNC scored three runs in the sixth inning and held on for 5-4 win, its third straight victory by one run in the postseason.
“It doesn’t really matter how you get there,” Fox said. “Baseball’s a tough game. At the end of the day, we’re going, and that’s the most important thing.”
Still, even Fox seemed to acknowledge how difficult this route had been by joining in the celebratory dogpile for the first time.
“That’s the first one I jumped in in 15 years,” Fox said. “It might be my last one. This has been a great group.”
The Tar Heels (57-10) had to rely on its bullpen. Each of UNC’s three starters had their shortest start of the season against South Carolina, and sophomore Benton Moss lasted 2.1 innings Tuesday.
Still, Brian Holberton gave the Tar Heels a 2-1 lead in the second inning with a two-run homer to right – UNC’s first of the series and the first home run given up by South Carolina freshman Jack Wynkoop in 63.1 career innings.
“As soon as I hit it I thought it was foul,” Holberton said. “Either the wind or good luck or my birthday yesterday helped it go out.”
The Gamecocks (43-20), who had been 8-1 in elimination games since 2010 and were coming off three straight championship series appearances, regained the lead in the fifth inning thanks to an inexplicable error by senior outfielder Chaz Frank, who had a routine fly ball drop from his glove.
“It’s devastating at that moment and it takes the wind out of us,” Frank said. “But that’s why this team is a tough out, we just continue to pick each other up.”
Down 4-2 in the sixth, Landon Lassiter started the winning rally with a leadoff single, and ACC player of the year Colin Moran followed with a triple into the rightfield corner that increased his school-record and nation’s-best total to 88 RBIs.
“I really didn’t want that play by Chaz to decide the game,” Moran said. “Knowing that it was (his) last home game, the last thing I wanted was for something like that to be the last memory.”
Moran then scored the tying run on a throwing error by South Carolina – one of the Gamecocks’ three errors on the game.
After UNC loaded the bases on two walks and an error, South Carolina brought in closer Tyler Webb to face No. 9 hitter Parks Jordan. Jordan worked his way back from an 0-2 count to draw a walk and plate what turned out to be the winning run.
“There’s not too much difference between the two teams, and ultimately we didn’t do enough to win,” Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook said. “It’ll haunt me for a long time, but I’m awfully proud of our players UNC didn’t allow a hit for the final three innings, though it did issue four walks. With a runner on first and one out, the Tar Heels went to ACC pitcher of the year Kent Emanuel to close out the game.
The junior, who started Saturday’s series opener, had allowed 14 runs in 11.2 innings during the postseason. But he said that had no bearing on his mindset Tuesday.
“It didn’t matter if I would have given up 20 runs or thrown a perfect game,” Emanuel said. “It’s always going to be the same.”
Emanuel got the final two outs on two pitches, setting off a raucous celebration just off the mound.
Emanuel said that as a freshman in 2011, he thought the process of making it to Omaha – the Tar Heels won all five games by a combined score of 39-10 -- seemed too easy and happened too quickly.
“This year we’ve had some incredible games,” Emanuel said. “This team’s definitely one that likes to battle.”