CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—For the first time since 1980, St. John’s will advance out of regional play after knocking off top-seeded North Carolina for the second time in as many days at the Chapel Hill Regional. Junior Robert Case delivered a pinch-hit, two-out double with the bases loaded in the seventh inning to give the Red Storm the lead for good, as it held on to win 9-5.
"We had that storybook ending yesterday and maybe took the wind out of their sails," St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "Sometimes, it's destiny. I thought we brought our 'A' game. I thought we were playing our best baseball coming into this."
Tar Heels coach Mike Fox relied on three freshmen pitchers during the game after sophomore righthander Shane Taylor (5-1, 3.48) was forced from the game after giving up four runs on seven hits in just two innings. Fox went to righthander Luis Paula to come in and give the Tar Heels a fighting chance. Paula, who has emerged as a important short reliever in recent weeks, pitched the next 4 1/3 innings, giving up three runs on five hits while striking out seven. It was his second-longest outing of the season and longest since March 6.
In the top of the seventh inning, Fox called upon righthander Mason McCullough with runners on second and third. With the infield at medium range depth, McCullough induced a ground ball to freshman shortstop Michael Russell, who made a nice play on a ball to his right for the second out. But McCullough walked the next batter to load the bases. Fox went to righthander Chris McCue to face the pinch-hitter, Case, who was 1-for-15 in Big East Conference play. On a 1-2 offering, Case sent a line drive into the left-center-field gap to score a pair of insurance runs to give the Red Storm a 7-4 lead.
“Every coach will tell you, you can’t coach or teach experience, you just have to get it," Fox said. "It’s part of it. I think Luis Paula grew up. If he’s in another one next year, it won’t be new to him. We hope the big games we’ve been in and playing in front of a lot of people in a regional will help us down the road and help our young guys.”
Sophomore first baseman Frank Schwindel led the offensive attack for the Red Storm, going 5-for-5 with three runs scored. Collectively, St. John’s had 14 hits.
“We tried to get back to the basics and tried to play our baseball,” junior outfielder and regional MVP Jeremy Baltz said. “We’re on a pretty good win streak right now, winning the Big East Tournament and coming here against one of the best programs in the country—one of the most storied programs—and it’s just an honor. It’s a great experience.”
Junior righthander Matt Carasiti (7-5, 3.79) wasn’t at his best for the Red Storm, going 5 1/3 innings and giving up four runs on six hits. However, St. John’s bullpen weathered the storm a couple of times, only allowing one inherited runner to score while giving up two hits in 3 2/3 innings.
In the bottom of the seventh, UNC outfielder Parks Jordan led off the bottom of the inning with a bunt single, and Chaz Frank followed with a walk after working the count full. After second baseman Tommy Coyle flew out to left for the first out, Colin Moran singled to center, loading up the bases for catcher Jacob Stallings. Thrown into the middle of a jam, St. John's sophomore righthander James Lomangino came on in relief of Kevin Kilpatrick. Lomangino pumped several low-to-mid-90s fastballs to Stallings, but he kept fouling pitches off and eventually drew a walk on the 10th pitch of the at-bat to make it a 7-5 ballgame. But Cody Stubbs popped out to the catcher and Shell McCain struck out on three pitches, leaving the bases loaded to end the UNC threat.
“I guess it felt like momentum was in our favor a little bit there,” Stallings said. “Cody just missed one and Shell couldn’t get the barrel on one but it doesn’t come down to just those two at-bats. We had other opportunities. I had opportunities, other guys had opportunities and we just couldn’t quite get it done.”
The Tar Heels failed to advance to the super regionals for the second time in three years and also sustained their first two losses at home in regional play since 2006. St. John’s advances to face Arizona in the Tucson Super Regional, just two wins from its first trip to the College World Series trip since winning that 1980 regional.
“After a tough start, we were trying to find ourselves," said Blankmeyer, whose club started 4-9. "But towards the end of the season, I felt that we were a good club and had a chance to do something special. Hopefully we can continue that trip.”