OMAHA–The last two days have been about redemption and validation for North Carolina. UNC’s rotation had drawn ridicule from fans and media here at the College World Series after a string of poor outings, but the Tar Heels silenced their critics with consecutive stellar performances in elimination games. A day after Luke Putkonen shut down Louisville’s potent offense, Robert Woodard allowed just a run on five hits over 6 2/3 innings in UNC’s 6-1 victory against Rice on Wednesday. The Tar Heels staved off elimination for the second straight day, setting up a Thursday rematch with the Owls to decide a trip to the CWS championship series.
Woodard (11-2) did not make it out of the second inning in North Carolina’s CWS opener against Mississippi State, allowing four runs on seven hits in 1 2/3. But the Woodard who took the mound Wednesday was more like the guy who owns UNC’s career wins record, the guy who threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout against Clemson in last year’s College World Series. He commanded his fastball very well, spotting it on the inside corner to get two of his four strikeouts on the afternoon. And when runners reached base, Woodard buckled down–twice he thwarted Rice rallies by inducing 4-6-3 double plays.
“Today I thought he had some of the best control I’ve seen in three years here,” Rice first baseman Joe Savery said. “Especially when he kept it low and away–even Barry Bonds can’t hit the low-and-away pitching.”
It’s not like UNC’s much-maligned starting pitching has rebounded against cream-puff offenses. Both Louisville and Rice scored in double digits in their first two CWS games this year, and both were held to just one run in their third game by North Carolina.
Woodard is a master of compartmentalizing situations–he does not dwell on his last start, and he doesn’t even dwell on the last batter or the last pitch. For him, the key to the turnaround was a mechanical adjustment, not a mental one.
“I tweaked my rocker step a little bit,” he said. “My energy was going left to right and then forward, as opposed to everything just staying in a straight line.”
So Woodard and UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes went to a nearby high school and worked on getting Woodard’s momentum back into a straight line. He credited a lot of his success to the adjustment.
Woodard wasn’t the only Tar Heel to get a taste of redemption Wednesday. Freshman first baseman Dustin Ackley entered the game mired in a nasty slump–his average had plummeted from .442 on the morning of the ACC championship game on May 27 to .400 heading into today’s action. The Tar Heels dropped him from the No. 3 hole in the lineup to No. 7, and when he reached on an error in the second inning, his average dropped below .400 for the first time since March 9.
But Ackley singled through the right side of the infield in the fifth, and he broke open a 3-1 game in the seventh with a three-run homer to right field, his first long ball since May 11 and his first extra-base hit since May 24. The low-key, even-keeled Ackley also credited a mechanical adjustment, saying he had been flying open a bit instead of stepping straight toward the pitcher.
“I don’t think I was pressing at all,” Ackley said. “I’ve been doing the same things I’ve always been doing. I haven’t been trying to do too much with a pitch or anything like that.”
Tar Heels coach Mike Fox agreed that it didn’t really seem like Ackley’s mental approach had changed, but he speculated the move to the No. 7 hole might have relieved a bit of pressure. Whatever the cause, UNC should be encouraged by its strong starting pitching and the big day for Ackley.
“That’s good for us. We need those two things, two very important things, to happen,” Fox said.
The Tar Heels will look to get a third straight quality start tomorrow from righthander Adam Warren, who will oppose Rice righty Matt Langwell. If there’s pressure on either team, it must be on the Owls, which started 2-0 in Omaha last year before Oregon State shut them out in back-to-back games. The offense failed the Owls again today, but so did the pitching–starter Ryan Berry (11-3) posted a second consecutive short outing, exiting after loading the bases in the fourth. Berry didn’t get any help from the Rice defense, as consecutive errors by its middle infielders in the second inning led to a pair of unearned runs for North Carolina.
Now the trick will be for the Owls to put Wednesday and the 2006 CWS behind them.
“We know what happened today, and we know where we were last year–all that stuff has been very well documented,” Savery said. “It’s pressure because you’re playing for the national championship. We don’t want to go out the way we did last year, getting to the winner’s bracket, winning the first two games, so that’s definitely in the back of your mind. But at the end of the day, you just want to win because you want to win the national championship, not to prevent something from happening from last year.”
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