CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Despite the best efforts of both teams, somebody had to win the Chapel Hill Super Regional.
Between North Carolina and South Carolina, two teams that had advanced to that stage partly on the strength of their defensive play, errors were a deciding factor in which way the series broke.
The third and deciding game was especially ugly. The two teams combined for five errors, with lead-changing rallies by both teams hinging on miscues. The Tar Heels emerged with a 5-4 win, though, and advanced to their 10th College World Series—and their sixth in the last eight years.
The scoring began innocuously enough. South Carolina sophomore right fielder Connor Bright doubled with one out in the second inning and, one out later, sophomore center fielder Tanner English singled him home to give South Carolina a 1-0 lead.
The Tar Heels responded in the bottom of the inning when sophomore shortstop Michael Russell was hit by a pitch and junior catcher Brian Holberton’s high fly ball to right field carried over the fence for a two-run homer.
But then the errors really started coming, and the score began to swing back and forth. The Gamecocks put two runners on against North Carolina freshman Trent Thornton with one out in the fifth inning. He struck out senior third baseman Chase Vergason and appeared to have escaped the jam when sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake hit a fly ball to Chaz Frank in center.
Except instead of squeezing the out, Frank let the ball bounce off his glove. Both South Carolina runners scored, giving the Gamecocks a 3-2 lead.
After South Carolina added another run in the sixth inning on an English RBI double, the Tar Heels had a chance to put a dent in the lead with the middle of the order coming up. After freshman DH Landon Lassiter singled up the middle, junior third baseman Colin Moran ripped a line drive down the first base line. He had a surefire double and Lassiter would have scored either way, but Bright misplayed the carom off the right-field wall, allowing Moran to get to third, 90 feet away from tying the game.
Freshman right fielder Skye Bolt was hit by a pitch to put runners on the corners, but senior first baseman Cody Stubbs’ fly ball to center was too shallow for Moran to tag up.
Bolt was tagging from first on the play, though, and when South Carolina first baseman Kyle Martin cut off the throw from English and tried to nail Bolt at second, his toss skipped into center field. Moran jogged home from third to tie the game. The Tar Heels would later load the bases that inning, and junior left fielder Parks Jordan walked to force home the go-ahead run.
Thornton, sophomore Chris McCue and junior Kent Emanuel combined to hold the Gamecocks scoreless the rest of the game. Emanuel, the starting pitcher in North Carolina’s 6-5 win Saturday, needed just two pitches to retire the final two South Carolina batters and get the save.
“Ultimately, we didn’t do enough to win the two games that they (North Carolina) won,” South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. “It’ll haunt me for a long time.”
Holbrook also gave credit to North Carolina, a team for which he served as an assistant coach as recently as 2008, for jumping on the Gamecocks’ miscues. He said the Tar Heels “forced” some of the errors.
“In postseason play, when you’re playing a great team, every little mistake is magnified,” he said.
The Tar Heels last advanced to Omaha in 2011, making this year’s trip the second for some players, including staff ace Emanuel. But when he was asked to compare the two trips, he didn’t even wait to finish hearing the question before pointing out the differences.
“Freshman year, when we won the second game of supers, all the freshman, we were just talking to each other, like ‘That seemed a little too easy, seemed like it happened real quick,’ ” he said. “Definitely not the case this year.”
It’s an interesting contrast, given that this year has been an especially dominating one for North Carolina. Even if the Tar Heels don’t win a College World Series game, their 57-win total is already tied for the most by a Mike Fox-coached team. They’ve hit, pitched, and played defense all at above-average levels. And they have won every round of postseason competition so far—including the ACC tournament.
But they have also faced elimination and played from behind enough times to have a detrimental effect on Fox’s blood pressure. They have played games in which their season was on the line both in regional and super regional play. Tar Heels were down to their last three outs two different times when they beat Florida Atlantic to get through regionals, and they trailed for much of the series against the Gamecocks.
North Carolina has gotten clutch hitting and had plenty of luck, though, and Tuesday’s game ended with a dogpile rather than a morose walk through the tunnel. The first game Fox’s squad will play in Omaha will be against its Tobacco Road rival North Carolina State, and the likely starter will be sophomore Carlos Rodon, one of the most dominant lefthanders in the country.
The Tar Heels have had plenty of difficulty against lefties all year, and they could very well fall behind again, having to scrap for runs.
But they will know, both from experience and doctrine, to never count themselves out.