OMAHA—So much for all the lower-seeded teams winning out in the opening weekend of the College World Series. North Carolina sophomore righthander Alex White and the Tar Heels’ relentless offense put an end to that.
North Carolina, the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, took control early with a three-run first inning and rode a strong seven-innings effort from White to beat Louisiana State 8-4. It’s just the second loss for LSU in its last 27 games, but it leaves the Tigers one loss away from the end of their season. LSU (48-18-1) meets Rice on Tuesday afternoon in an elimination game, while the Tar Heels (52-12), who rapped out 15 singles among their 17 hits, play Fresno State next on Tuesday night.
“Tonight was typical of our team,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “We singled them to death, and it was really important that we responded with some runs early . . . Alex has really improved from last year, and he really settled in.”
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The first inning. LSU seemed to seize momentum right off the bat with Michael Hollander’s leadoff home run, but North Carolina responded with three in the bottom half, allowing starter Alex White to settle in.
North Carolina built an 8-2 lead and had to weather a furious eighth-inning rally by the Tigers, doing so with the help of a fortuitous call at first base. White pitched into the eighth and was lifted after giving up a leadoff single and running a 2-0 count on Jared Mitchell.
Lefthander Brian Moran entered and was ineffective, giving up singles to Mitchell and first-team All-American Blake Dean and walking catcher Micah Gibbs to walk in a run. Moran got a crucial strikeout of national home runs leader Matt Clark, who hit his 27th in the second inning, and Fox turned to closer Rob Wooten, a senior righthander who throws virtually nothing but sliders.
Wooten got two chopper groundballs, both of them odd plays, to get out of the inning. D.J. LeMahieu grounded to third baseman Chad Flack, who hesitated for a moment, as if to tag Dean as he ran to third base, and then threw late to first. The play was ruled an infield hit, and LSU had pulled to within 8-4 with the bases loaded, one out and center fielder Leon Landry coming to the plate as the tying run. Landry chopped one up the middle, and UNC shortstop Ryan Graepel fielded it while stepping on second for a force out there. He threw to first, and while Landry appeared to have beaten the throw with some ease, first-base umpire Jack Cox rang him up for an inning-ending double play.
“It was definitely a close play at first,” Graepel said. “The umpire called him out, and that’s the way it is.”
Mainieri saw it otherwise but didn’t consider that the turning point in the game. “It was a tough call that went against us,” he said. “It was pretty obvious to me he was safe, and we would have been at 8-5 with the tying run at the plate. But the umpire made the call the way he saw it, and we have to live with that.”
LSU had a hard time living with White in the first seven innings. Michael Hollander led off the game with a solo homer and Clark hit his in the second inning. Otherwise, White tamed the Tigers, striking out six by mixing a 90-94 mph fastball that touched 95 on ESPN’s radar gun, an effective slider to righthanded hitters and a split-finger fastball he called his best pitch on the night. He retired 12 of 14 hitters after Clark’s homer.
The other key for White, he said, was the early lead the Tar Heels’ offense provided. A pair of infield hits and a line-drive single by Kyle Shelton loaded the bases with none out in the first off LSU starter Ryan Verdugo, and North Carolina put up a three spot in the first, adding two in the third and one apiece in the fourth, fifth and seventh with a relentless, aggressive approach. Second baseman Kyle Seager, left fielder Tim Fedroff and center fielder Seth Williams had three hits apiece, with Williams driving in three.
“That first inning was very frustrating,” Mainieri said. “They started swinging the bats after that . . . We helped them, I thought, with some pretty mediocre defense at times.
“We have to have better at-bats, but Alex White was outstanding. I can see why people talk about him with such superlatives.”
Mainieri also said he could see how North Carolina has played so well in Omaha the last three seasons. After two trips to the championship series the last two years—both ending in defeat to Oregon State—North Carolina made itself the favorite here with its victory Sunday night. White confirmed that he’s the best starting pitcher in the field; seniors such as Williams and Wooten gave the Tar Heels a veteran calm; and North Carolina played from behind, with a big lead and with a shrinking lead, showing no sign of nerves or tightness evident in virtually every other team but Fresno State so far.
“They had an aura about them, they were very confident,” Mainieri said of the Tar Heels. “Their pitcher set the tone for them. They’re as good a team as we thought they were. They outplayed us tonight.”