OMAHA–North Carolina’s comeback streak came to a screeching halt Sunday when it ran into a red-hot Rice offense and Joe Savery.
The Owls’ lefthander held the Tar Heels in check for six innings on the mound, and was one of the nine Owls starters (of course, that makes all of them) who had a hit, a run scored and an RBI as Rice routed North Carolina 14-4. Rice improved to 2-0 and took control of this bracket, while the Tar Heels face an elimination game against Louisville on Tuesday.
Rice’s offense had been dormant in its first five postseason victories, scoring just 22 runs. Now, in victories against Louisville (15-10) and North Carolina, the Owls have exploded for 29 runs. They pummeled a CWS-record nine Tar Heels pitchers for 14 hits Sunday, starting with five hits during a six-run second inning that chased starter Alex White (6-6).
The key at-bat of the inning proved to be a 13-pitch effort by first baseman J.P. Padron, the nine-hole hitter who fouled off seven pitches and worked a walk. (Of course, Padron’s no ordinary nine-hole hitter, having been drafted in the 12th round out of high school in 2005.) After balking home a run, White came out after Brian Friday followed with a two-run double that made it 6-0.
“We had a lot of quality at-bats,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said, “typified by J.P.’s at-bat. He fouled off all those pitches and kept the rally going.
“Our goal when we start the fall is to get that balance, one through nine in the lineup. So far here we’re getting that, and it’s great.”
White, who looked impressive in a 1-2-3 first inning, was touching 94 mph and sitting in the 91-93 mph range with his fastball but couldn’t throw it for strikes in the second, and the Owls pounced on him. Then no Tar Heels reliever could stem the tide–Rice scored in six of the nine innings, constantly keeping the pressure on and giving UNC no hope of a comeback. The Tar Heels had trailed by at least two runs in each of their last six postseason victories.UNC pitchers walked five and hit four batters as well. Meanwhile, Rice reliever Cole St.Clair struck out the last two batters with the bases loaded to get the three-inning save in a game that was never in doubt. Rice improved to 2-0 for the second straight year in the CWS, but this time, Savery said, it feels like the Owls are in a better position.
“Last year, honestly I felt lucky to be 2-0,” said Savery, who hit for the Owls but couldn’t pitch last year due to a shoulder injury. “We were lucky to beat Georgia and then Bryce (Cox) really bailed us out against Miami. This year, with that experience, we’re not just happy to get a game. “It wasn’t a great start; I got through it. But it means a lot (to pitch in Omaha). I know being a two-way guy is hard, but I was happy to be able to show that to everyone who was watching.”Savery (11-1) kept the ball in the ballpark during six effective, if not pretty, innings. All of North Carolina’s runs came with two outs, and only twice during the game did it string together back-to-back hits. With this victory, the Owls get back-to-back days off and don’t play again until Wednesday, when they will face the winner of the North Carolina-Louisville game.
UNC will have to pitch better if it’s to meet the Owls again. The Tar Heels’ lack of starting pitching has been its weakness in the NCAA tournament in stark contrast to last year’s team, which featured first-round picks Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard. This year, White, Robert Woodard and Luke Putkonen have faltered since Woodard dominated Jacksonville in the regional opener; all three have been hit hard since then. In seven ensuing games, UNC starters have given up 38 runs (32 earned) in 25 2/3 innings, a startling 11.22 ERA.And on this night, the Tar Heel bullpen–which had given up just six runs (all earned) in 28 2/3 innings in the postseason–buckled under its increased workload. The Owls put up eight more runs (seven earned), with Aaron Luna’s two-run homer in the ninth topping things off.
“There’s not a whole lot for me to say . . . they just gave us an old-fashioned fanny whipping,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “We just didn’t do any phase of the game well.
“Savery is terrific; you can see why he’s so well regarded. He had three pitches for strikes and made it tough on our guys.”
Now the Tar Heels face hot-hitting Louisville in an elimination game, with the added drama of facing their former pitching coach. Cardinals pitching coach Roger Williams was an assistant at UNC for 11 years, leaving after the 2005 season. White implied in his postgame comments that Woodard would get the start Tuesday, but Fox said Luke Putkonen would start.