CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—North Carolina let Canisius hang around Friday in its regional opener. Then it let Towson back into the game Saturday, and while the No. 1 national seed won both games by three runs, it needed freshman closer Trent Thornton to shut the door both times.
Thornton wasn’t available Sunday in the regional final against Florida Atlantic, and the Tar Heels needed him. They squandered plenty of scoring chances, leaving 15 runners on base total. Even as starter Hobbs Johnson carried a no-hitter into the bottom of the seventh, the score was just 2-0.
Florida Atlantic third baseman Ricky Santiago made sure it didn’t stay that way. He delivered a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh—the Owls’ first hit—and the bullpen made the lead hold. Florida Atlantic beat the Tar Heels 3-2 to set up a rematch, scheduled for Monday if threatening weather permits, for the regional championship.
“It happened,” said UNC senior outfielder Chaz Frank, who had four of North Carolina’s 12 hits and was stranded three times, once at each base. “Baseball’s a crazy sport.
“They made some big pitches to get out of some innings. Maybe there was a lack of focus for our team, which is not like us, with two of the top RBI guys (Colin Moran and Cody Stubbs) in the nation. It’s very different, unlike us.”
The Owls’ winning inning came in the bottom of the seventh. Johnson walked the leadoff man, and reliever Trevor Kelly walked Corey Keller, who had three homers in FAU’s first three regional games. Kelly struck out catcher Levi Meyer, who had some words of advice for Santiago, telling him Kelly had a good slider, so he needed to get his foot down early.
“He started me out with a good slider,” Santiago said, “and then a fastball away. Then he threw me a slider over the plate and I put a good swing on it. I knew it was gone; I hit it pretty good.”
North Carolina hit the ball well on the night but had only one extra-base hit, and Santiago’s homer continued a trend in the regional. UNC’s opening win against Canisius is the only victory in this regional without the aid of a home run. Every other winning team has homered; there have been no homers in a losing cause.
North Carolina’s lack of power proved costly, as it couldn’t put up a crooked number. The Tar Heels had three straight hits to start the game off lefty Bo Logan, making his first start of the year for FAU, and Colin Moran’s single made it 1-0. Logan wriggled out of a first-and-third, none-out jam to keep it 1-0.
That became a familiar theme for the Tar Heels, who stranded a runner in scoring position in each of the first seven innings and left at least one runner in every frame. The worst missed opportunity came in the sixth, when they loaded the bases with none out for Moran against freshman righthander Kyle Miller.
Moran took a ball, then got jammed and grounded a weak comebacker to the mound. Miller started a 1-2-3 double play, then retired Skye Bolt on a fly to left to end the inning.
“I thought if we just gave up two or three runs there, we’ve still got a shot,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “I think when Miller was able to get that fastball in, it surprised (Moran), and he was able to start the double play and then get the next guy.”
In the bottom of the sixth, Moran committed a one-out error, ending a string of 12 straight retired by Johnson. The junior lefthander lost his rhythm and release point, walking two more in the inning before escaping a bases-loaded jam.
North Carolina coach Mike Fox admitted Moran, who is 3-for-13 for the regional with one RBI, is struggling. The junior third baseman hit just .271 in May and is 2-for-8 in the first two games of June.
“It’s unlike Colin. I haven’t seen him swing at first pitches five times, maybe 10 all year long, all of a sudden (he is),” Fox said. “That tells you (maybe he’s) a little anxious, trying to do too much. Hitting is the most difficult skill in sport. When you try too hard—I can’t fault him for that. He’ll be better tomorrow.”
FAU’s pitching solved other Tar Heels, not just Moran, in key spot after key spot. Logan gave the Owls five innings, allowing eight hits but just two runs. Miller tossed a scoreless inning, Mike Sylvestri got six outs in the seventh and eighth, and Hugh Adams worked the ninth for his 18th save of the season and 31st of his career, adding to his Sun Belt Conference record total.
“(Logan) was the key to the game to me,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “His first start of the year, and he pitched very well.”
McCormack has to find another starter for Monday’s rematch, and mentioned righty Jeremy Strawn, who started Friday against Towson, as a possibility along with lefty Alex Koji, who faced two batters in the seventh and didn’t record an out. Sylvestri, Adams and perhaps ace lefty Austin Gomber—who threw 95 pitches Saturday—factor into the Owls’ picture.
The Tar Heels will counter with senior righthander Chris Munnelly (6-0, 2.36). But what they really have to do is put a difficult loss behind them and find a way to bring home some runs.
“The good news is we get to play again tomorrow night,” Fox said. “We’ll try to put this one behind us as quickly as we can.”