OMAHA–North Carolina knew it would eventually need some quality starting pitching in order to make a deep run in the College World Series. After its first two CWS starters, Robert Woodard and Alex White, allowed 10 total runs in a combined three innings, junior righthander Luke Putkonen delivered the first quality start by a UNC pitcher since its NCAA tournament opener against Jacksonville. Putkonen stymied Louisville’s previously high-flying offense for seven innings in Tuesday’s first elimination game, allowing just a run on three hits over seven innings in UNC’s 3-1 win.
It’s a good thing Putkonen (8-1) was sharp, because the Tar Heels mustered a season-low three hits in victory. All three UNC runs came in the second inning, starting with Seth Williams’ RBI single to right field. The next batter, Garrett Gore, hit a slow chopper to third base that Chris Dominguez charged, gloved and threw wildly into foul territory, allowing two runs to score. That put the Tar Heels ahead 3-1, and it turned out that’s all they needed. Lucky for them, because none of the 21 batters after Williams could come up with a hit.
“Obviously it was atypical of what we’ve done our first couple of days out here,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “We just pitched terrific, and we had to, really. The park played a lot different than the last couple of days because of the wind. I thought Luke, (relievers) Rob (Wooten) and (Andrew Carignan) were terrific, and of course they picked a good day to be terrific, we had only three hits. I’m not sure I’ve had too many games where our team’s got three hits and we were able to win. But pitching and defense is the name of the game, and we got both of those today.”
Louisville pitchers Colby Wark (3-4), Gavin Logsdon and Trystan Magnuson nearly matched Putkonen, Wooten and Carignan zero for zero, with some help from a stiff breeze blowing in from left to right. That was a stark change from the first three days of the CWS, when it was gusting out, usually to left-center. But that doesn’t detract from what the six pitchers were able to accomplish against two very good offenses that can win without the long ball.
“The wind blowing in doesn’t mean it’s going to be a pitcher’s game,” Louisville second baseman Logan Johnson said. “If you hit line drives, the wind’s not a factor. We just weren’t able to hit a lot of line drives today.”
Johnson was the only hitter all day who challenged the wind and won, belting a first-inning solo home run that just cleared the left-field fence. It was Johnson’s record-tying fourth homer of the CWS, but it was all the scoring the Cardinals could manage against Putkonen, who tied a career high with seven strikeouts. UNC catcher Tim Federowicz said Putkonen was hitting his spots with his fastball, but the biggest key was that he was controlling his breaking ball. Once he got ahead of Louisville’s aggressive hitters, he buried his curveball in the dirt and got them to chase. He also did a good job taking advantage of home-plate umpire Dan Mascorro’s wide strike zone.
“They mixed it up, working both sides of the plate,” Johnson said. “And they expanded the zone with two strikes–that’s just what it takes to get outs.”
North Carolina’s starting pitching has come under plenty of fire recently, and deservedly so. Putkonen gave up four runs over 3 1/3 innings in his last start during super-regionals, and he yielded five runs over 4 2/3 in regionals. In fact, he lasted seven innings just once all season–March 25 against Virginia Tech.
But his stuff can be electric, with a fastball that reaches 94 mph and a good downer curve. The Tigers drafted Putkonen in the third round, which gives an indication that the redshirt sophomore can be much better than his 4.74 ERA entering the day. Fox knew he needed to win three more games to get back to the CWS championship series, and he knew Putkonen would have to start one of them. Even though ace Robert Woodard was rested enough to pitch again Tuesday, Fox planned all along to save him for a rematch with Rice.
“I said before that we all have a great deal of confidence in Luke,” Fox said. “I never even considered throwing anybody other than him. When he’s on, he’s got as good of stuff as anybody. Good pitching is going to beat good hitting any day of the week in this game. And today was just a good example of that.”
The Tar Heels now have their pitching set up nicely entering Wednesday’s 1 p.m. rematch with Rice. A fresh Woodard will get another crack at the Owls in that game, and UNC will have its choice of Alex White or Adam Warren should it force another game. Indications are that Rice will start freshman righthander Ryan Berry, who was hit hard in his first CWS start against Louisville, and leave Matt Langwell as a long reliever.
As for the Cardinals, their season may be over, but they can hold their heads and their toothy beaks high. In his first season at the helm, coach Dan McDonnell and his group of 10 seniors brought Louisville within striking distance of a national championship–in just the second NCAA tournament appearance in the school’s history.
“As I told the kids out in left field, they’ll go down as the greatest team in the history of Louisville baseball,” McDonnell said. “It’s a lot of mixed emotions, but it’s just a special season. As I told the players, if your season’s going to end, better it be in Omaha.”
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