North Carolina Completes Compelling CWS Field

North Carolina won a sloppy, mistake-filled super regional finale Tuesday against South Carolina, 5-4. The win propelled the Tar Heels to Omaha for the sixth time in the last eight years.

North Carolina

North Carolina (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

The Tar Heels took a 2-1 lead on Brian Holberton’s two-run homer in the second, but the Gamecocks surged ahead 3-2 when Chaz Frank dropped a routine fly ball with two outs and two aboard in the fifth. Tanner English doubled home another run in the sixth, but UNC took advantage of South Carolina miscues to score three runs in the bottom of the frame. Joey Pankake couldn’t handle Landon Lassiter’s line drive to lead off the inning--it went for a single, but it was a play Pankake certainly could have made. Colin Moran followed with an RBI triple into the right-field corner, reaching third after the ball caromed past Connor Bright. He scored on a throwing error to tie the game, and three straight walks forced in what would prove to be the winning run.

North Carolina showed plenty of resolve by escaping stout tests against Florida Atlantic last week and South Carolina this week. The Gamecocks contributed to their own demise by making three errors in each game and struggling to find the strike zone in the fateful sixth inning Monday. Airtight defense and clutch pitching were hallmarks of South Carolina’s three straight CWS trips over the last three years, so it was jarring to see the Gamecocks falter in those areas this weekend.

But North Carolina’s stars also came up big when it mattered Tuesday, from Moran’s big triple to Skye Bolt’s baserunning (he tagged from first base on a shallow fly in the sixth, drawing an errant throw that allowed Moran to score) to the work of the bullpen. Freshman stopper Trent Thornton (4.2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 2 BB 4 K) took over for Benton Moss in the third inning and got the Tar Heels to the late innings. Chris McCue followed with 1.1 hitless innings of relief, and Kent Emanuel entered with a man on first in the ninth, then recorded the final two outs with just two pitches.

So the Tar Heels will face off against rival North Carolina State in another highly anticipated showdown Sunday in Omaha. Emanuel and Moran posed with N.C. State’s Trea Turner and Carlos Rodon for the cover of our College Preview issue back in January, and their meeting in Omaha should be great theater. Here are this weekend’s matchups and game times:

Saturday, June 15:

3 p.m. ET: Oregon State vs. Mississippi State

8 p.m. ET: Indiana vs. Louisville

Sunday, June 16:

3 p.m. ET: North Carolina vs. North Carolina State

8 p.m. ET: Louisiana State vs. UCLA

A few factoids and storylines to ponder:

• Three national seeds reached Omaha--No. 1 North Carolina, No. 3 Oregon State, and No. 4 LSU. That is tied for the fewest national seeds to reach the CWS since the 64-team era began in 1999. It also happened in 2007 and 2010.

• Even though there are just three national seeds, this is still a CWS field jammed with powerhouses. For the first time in the 64-team era, all eight CWS participants were No. 1 seeds in regionals.

• The field has nice geographic and conference balance, with two teams apiece from the ACC, SEC and Pac-12, plus two from the Midwest region (Indiana of the Big Ten and Louisville of the Big East). Indiana is the first Big Ten team to reach Omaha since Barry Larkin’s Michigan Wolverines of 1984.

• Indiana is also the only first-timer in this CWS field. Interestingly, half of this year’s field also participated in the 2007 CWS (UNC, Louisville, Mississippi State and Oregon State). For the Cardinals, Bulldogs and Beavers, that was the last time each team had been in Omaha before this year. N.C. State is making its first appearance since 1968 (and its second in school history).

• UNC and UCLA have become regulars in recent years, as the Tar Heels are in Omaha for the sixth time in the last eight years, while the Bruins are making their third trip in the last four years. Before UNC’s run began in 2006, it had made just four CWS trips in program history, the most recent in 1989. Before UCLA’s run began in 2010, it had made just two trips--in 1969 and 1997.

• Fourteen schools entered 2013 with double-digit CWS appearances in their history, but only one of them made it to Omaha--LSU. The Tigers and Beavers are also the only teams in this CWS field that have won national championships.

• This is the first College World Series field without a team from Texas or Florida since 1990.

• Seven of the eight CWS teams were ranked in the top 12 in BA’s preseason Top 25: No. 1 UNC, No. 4 Louisville, No. 5 Mississippi State, No. 6 Oregon State, No. 8 N.C. State, No. 10 LSU and No. 12 UCLA. Indiana, our preseason favorite in the Big 10 Conference, was unranked in the preseason, but the Hoosiers cracked the BA Top 25 for the first time in program history in Week Four, and they have been ranked ever since.

• UNC and N.C. State split their first two meetings this season in Raleigh before Sunday’s game was rained out, and UNC won the third meeting between the two clubs in 18 innings at the ACC tournament. But those aren’t the only two opening-weekend opponents with recent history. Indiana and Louisville met in three midweek games this season, with the Hoosiers winning two of them.