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|GAME AT A
Point: North Carolina starter Adam Warren said he struggled with his fastball command for the first four innings, and Southern Miss nearly got back into the game in the fourth. Freshman B.A. Vollmuth made it an 8-3 game with a three-run homer, and the Golden Eagles put two more runners aboard after that before Warren got James Ewing to pop out to third base to end the inning. Warren retired the next six hitters—three via strikeout—and the Eagles never threatened again.
OMAHA—Southern Mississippi coach Corky Palmer admitted after Tuesday’s elimination game against North Carolina that he was concerned how righthander J.R. Ballinger would fare against a UNC lineup that featured seven lefthanded hitters.
“Kind of my worst fears came true,” Palmer said. “North Carolina is a tremendous club; they can pitch, hit, play defense. I was hoping I was wrong, but I was kind of worried about our matchup.”
His fears were indeed well-founded. Led by Dustin Ackley’s second career five-hit game, the Tar Heels tied a College World Series record with 23 hits—20 of them singles—in an 11-4 win against Southern Miss.
Ackley, who has hit safely in all 14 career CWS games, tied former Stanford star Sam Fuld’s record for most career hits in Omaha in the second inning. He added three more hits after that and now stands alone with 27 career hits at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Ackley singled up the middle to drive in a run in the first, then doubled in another run to left-center in the second, and singled to left for another RBI in the third. He added two more singles—up the middle in the fifth and through the right side of the infield in the seventh—before finally being retired on a long fly ball to left field in the ninth. As he jogged back to the dugout following the fly out, he got a pat on the back from USM first baseman Joey Archer. Southern Miss senior second baseman James Ewing marveled at Ackley’s performance in the postgame press conference.
“Every time I shaded the middle, he’d hit to the four-hole, and every time I shaded the four-hole, he’d hit to the middle,” Ewing said. “It was the same with our shortstop. The guy can just flat-out hit. We’d always heard about him, but to watch him—the guy’s got great hand-eye coordination, you can’t strike him out, even the one time we got him out, that ball was well-hit. That was a show he put on today.”
Ackley was characteristically matter-of-fact about his big day, though he did admit that the record was in his sights heading into the game. But a more telling look into his psyche came when a reporter told him that he fell one hit shy of tying the CWS record for most hits in a game (set by Tennessee’s Kris Bennett in 2001).
“I wish I would have known that. I knew I wanted that sixth hit, I just didn’t know about the record,” Ackley said. “I got a good pitch to hit. I wish I’d turned on it instead of going the other way.”
That’s the evolution of a great hitter. Ackley realized he just missed on a ball that Ewing considered a hard out, a good at-bat. For Ackley, it was a mistake, the lone regret in an otherwise perfect afternoon. He improved to 19-for-33 (.576) in this NCAA tournament and raised his career postseason average to .419 (54-for-129).
Of course, Ackley had just five of UNC’s 23 hits. Six other Tar Heels recorded multiple-hit days, led by junior shortstop Ryan Graepel, who posted his first career four-hit game. Over the first two innings, UNC seemed to be picking up where it left off in Sunday’s loss to Arizona State, when it left 11 runners on base. The Tar Heels had six hits and nine baserunners over the first two innings, but they had just two runs to show for it.
But it was only a matter of time before they broke through against Ballinger on Tuesday. The Tar Heels chased him in a four-run third inning, then added two more runs in the fourth against lefty reliever Cody Schlagel to increase the lead to 8-0. North Carolina has recorded 10 or more hits in 12 of its last 13 games.
“Early on, I thought we were hitting some balls on the nose and squaring up some balls, even the balls that were caught,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “I looked up at the scoreboard, we got like 10 hits, but we were only up 2-0. We left guys on base, and hit into double plays. Then in the third inning, we did it all with two outs. It’s a strange game in that regard. Who would have thought we’d have 23 hits in the World Series?”
Fox also had plenty of kind words for Palmer, who is retiring after more than three decades as a coach. Palmer and the Golden Eagles held their heads high in the press conference. They are rightfully proud of their remarkable late-season run, which culminated in the program’s first trip to the College World Series.
There was an emotional moment when a reporter asked Palmer if it had hit him yet that this is the last time he’ll put on his uniform. Palmer choked up and softly said he had promised his jersey to his wife. Later, he said he had no regrets about anything.
“We had a magical season,” Palmer said. “Our kids played great, can’t ask any more than what we’ve done the last three weeks. It’s great for our baseball program, our university, and our community. I’m proud to be part of it, real happy these guys let me work a little longer. And it was all them; I was just along for the ride.”