OMAHA–Removed from their home field in Chapel Hill for the first time in the NCAA tournament, North Carolina quickly found a way to get comfortable.
It got behind.
For the sixth time in seven tournament games, the Tar Heels trailed early Friday night, falling behind Mississippi State 4-0 as the Bulldogs forced senior Robert Woodard–the Tar Heels’ career wins leader–into the earliest exit of his career. No matter. North Carolina again stormed back to victory, using outstanding relief pitching by Adam Warren and a six-run sixth inning to beat Mississippi State 8-5.
The victory puts the Tar Heels into Sunday’s winners’ meeting against Rice, while Mississippi State will try to regroup against Louisville.
“Their bullpen was the difference,” Mississippi State coach Ron Polk said. “They really have some good arms. I told Mike Fox that the scouting report on them was tremendous depth in the bullpen, and you could see it.
“Mike said, ‘I like your ballclub.’ I said ‘I like your bullpen.'”
The Bulldogs knocked pretty much everything Woodard threw around Rosenblatt Stadium, with four straight hits (including a pair of doubles) to start the second inning. Brandon Turner’s RBI single made it 4-0, and Warren relieved Woodard after Ed Easley’s double. It was Warren’s first appearance since May 23, the first game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
He wriggled out of that second-and-third, two-outs jam, then threw four more scoreless innings to earn his 11th victory in as many decisions. Only ex-big leaguer Scott Bankhead (1984) has had as many wins without a loss in a season in UNC history, and Warren lowered his ERA to 1.95.
“It’s not easy coming in with runners on, but the adrenalin was pumping,” said Warren, usually North Carolina’s midweek starter. “It was just exciting to be out there again, trying to help the team win. Our team doesn’t stop playing until they tell us to stop playing.”
As Warren settled in, the Tar Heels’ offense got going. Mississippi State starter Justin Pigott sailed through the first three innings but gave up a leadoff walk to Dustin Ackley in the fourth, and three singles later in the inning–including RBI hits by Chad Flack and Benji Johnson–cut Mississippi State’s lead in half.
Pigott lasted into the sixth, but the Tar Heels figured him out, as they continued their amazing postseason trend. North Carolina has been outscored 27-15 in the first four innings of its tournament games, but has outscored its opponents 40-11 from the fifth inning on.
“We have a mature team this year,” said Johnson, a junior DH/catcher who had an RBI double during the six-run sixth. “We have a lot of experience from the World Series last year, we’ve all been through it, and we’ve gotten lots of contributions from our freshmen too. We’ve learned the last two years that we have to always have confidence in ourselves.”
That confidence proved well-placed again Friday night. Two hit batsmen, a walk and an error contributed to the sixth-inning uprising. Johnson’s RBI double brought home the tying run, and Ackley’s two-run single not only made it 8-4, but also tied a school single-season hits record (112) and made him the Division I leader.
“At some point, (trailing early) will come back to get us,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “But I’m not sure when that will be. Fortunately we had a big inning. Starting pitching is so key, and we need a good start.”
Rob Wooten (who gave up a mammoth solo homer in the seventh to Mitch Moreland) and Andrew Carignan finished up the victory, with Carignan picking up his 16th save, tied for second in the nation.
Fox said freshman righthander Alex White would get the ball to start the Sunday matchup with Rice. Mississippi State, meanwhile, will face a familiar foe in Louisville’s head coach, Dan McDonnell, a former Mississippi assistant.