In our super-regional preview this week, a coach whose team has faced North Carolina pegged Chad Flack. “Even though Flack’s numbers are down this year, he’s a clutch player,” the coach said. “How many kids can say they’ve hit a walk-off home run to go to the World Series?”
Flack can say that–he hit two home runs (including a walk-off shot) in the second game of the the 2006 Tuscaloosa super-regional against Alabama. And now he can say that he’s hit two game-winning home runs to send his team to the College World Series. Flack’s two-run shot off the net protecting the left-field scoreboard broke a 4-4 tie in the seventh inning and propelled the Tar Heels to a 9-4 win against South Carolina on Sunday night.
“There was probably not a bigger swing of the bat than that home run,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “He’s kept his attitude up the whole time. I think mentally I’m sure he’d prefer to be out there doing the things he did last year, but he just hung in there.”
Flack’s home run came on a Will Atwood changeup on the outer half that Flack reached out and pulled high into the air. It ended a nine-game, 390-at-bat homer drought for UNC, which hadn’t gone deep since its May 19 win against Maryland. But it shouldn’t come as any huge surprise that it came off the bat of Flack, who has now launched four career NCAA tournament home runs.
“When that ball hit the net out there, I think I said to myself, ‘It’s about time,’” Fox said of snapping the homer drought.
This North Carolina team hasn’t done anything easily in the NCAA tournament, so it’s appropriate that the Tar Heels had to work awfully hard to get back to Omaha for the second straight year. Each of UNC’s last four victories in the regionals and super-regionals have been come-from-behind wins, and these aren’t cheap comebacks from early one-run deficits. The Tar Heels fell behind 4-1 in the fourth inning tonight when Travis Jones and Justin Smoak hit two-run and one-run doubles, respectively. But UNC has proven that it does not wilt in the face of adversity, and it didn’t wilt tonight. The Heels tied the game with three runs in the sixth before taking the lead on Flack’s big homer.
But it was all North Carolina could do to keep the dangerous Gamecocks offense at bay. UNC starter Luke Putkonen and relievers Rob Wooten and Andrew Carignan were dancing in and out of trouble all night, as the Gamecocks left runners in scoring position in each of the first five innings. USC stranded eight in scoring position in the game and left the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, when James Darnell gave North Carolina a major scare by flying out to the right-field warning track to end the inning. Carignan turned in a yeoman’s effort, throwing a career-high 69 pitches over four scoreless innings to earn the win.
“Certainly the effort that Andrew Carignan gave them out of the bullpen was special and nullified any opportunities that we had to put runs on the board,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “We did some good things this year, I’m proud of our effort, but we got beat by a better team.”
The huge performances from Flack, Carignan, Reid Fronk (3-for-5, 2 RBI) and Garrett Gore (2-for-5, 3 RBI) were completely in character for North Carolina. Postseason heroics have become almost routine for this bunch, which has developed a reputation for toughness and poise under the most daunting of circumstances.