After Tragic News, North Carolina Hangs On In College World Series Opener
OMAHA, Neb.—The pregame meal was not joyous, not celebratory, not remotely happy.
North Carolina head coach Mike Fox didn’t want to have to share the news with his players—especially not today—just hours before the first game of the College World Series against mighty Oregon State. But Fox had no choice. He gathered the Tar Heels on Saturday morning and told them that one of their former pitchers, lefthander Zach Attianese, and his father, died in a car accident Friday night.
Attianese was 20 years old. He pitched his freshman season at UNC last season before transferring to State College of Florida, and he was set to continue his college career at Florida State next spring.
For the Tar Heels, the news was obviously heart-wrenching—stunning. A pitcher from New Jersey, Attianese was part of the same recruiting class that brought fellow New Jerseyans and current sophomores Gianluca Dalatri and Brandon Martorano to Chapel Hill. Martorano and Attianese had been best friends since childhood.
Yet both Martorano and Dalatri still played Saturday—they were the starting battery. And despite the tragic and somber news, despite the blazing heat and the rigors of the longest nine-inning game in College World Series history, despite Dalatri exiting the contest with an unspecified injury with only two outs in the first inning, the Tar Heels found a way to prevail.
They defeated Oregon State, 8-6, on a day when they could’ve easily been swallowed by outside circumstances or overwhelmed by grief.
“My team played with a pretty heavy heart today,” said an emotional Fox, who devoted the final minutes of his post-game press conference to honor Attianese. “Zach was a great kid, lefthanded pitcher for us from Old Bridge, New Jersey and Brandon Martorano's best friend. That was kind of our pregame meal this morning, me having to tell our team.
“… I just felt like I needed to say that because it just shows you how tough my team is but also how caring my team is.”
That toughness was visible in a grueling, 4 hour, 24-minute contest against one of the nation’s best teams. The UNC baseball program is used to heavyweight battles against the Beavers—having faced them in the CWS finals in 2006 and 2007 that both ended in OSU championships.
But Saturday was a different sort of battle. The Tar Heels were tested in every facet and needed contributions from every inch of their roster just to keep the game tight.
Dalatri, who made just three appearances in the regular season due to an arm injury, lasted just five batters and allowed one run before he signaled to the UNC dugout that he was feeling off. He told both Fox and pitching coach Rob Woodard that the ball didn’t feel right coming out of his hand; it didn’t have the same zip it normally does.
Suddenly, UNC had to dip into its bullpen far earlier than it had intended, which could have dealt a crippling blow to UNC’s chances. But the Tar Heels maintained their composure. With the news they received earlier that morning, this was nothing.
“The characteristic of this team I like the most is that we flush things pretty quickly,” Fox said. “And eyes forward, eyes forward, we've said that a lot. Once he's out of the game we gotta—it's the next pitchers, the next pitch. And our guys didn't really panic or flinch. We knew we have to keep playing . . . I gotta give credit to our team for just continuing to play and compete under circumstances that are out of your control.”
Freshman lefthander Caden O’Brien was the first bullpen arm of five for the Tar Heels, and he recorded the final out of the first to stabilize the game for UNC.
Clearly, the Beavers seemed to have all of the game’s momentum, with a one-run lead and senior ace lefthander Luke Heimlich on the mound. But Heimlich, who sat out last year’s College World Series after The Oregonian reported he pleaded guilty to molesting a six-year-old relative as a teenager, struggled in his Omaha debut, allowing six earned runs on four hits in just 2.1 innings. His trademark command eluded him, as he threw just 30 of his 63 pitches for strikes.
The patient, disciplined Tar Heel lineup took full advantage of both Heimlich’s erratic performance and some uncharacteristic sloppiness from the typically sure-handed Oregon State defense. The Beavers made three errors Saturday—two that directly led to runs. The Tar Heels gladly accepted the extra outs and capitalized. The No. 8 and No. 9-hole hitters Ashton McGee and Ben Casparius combined for five RBIs on three hits in the bottom of the UNC order, as the Tar Heels continued to find production up and down their lineup.
Similar to their approach against No. 14 overall pick Logan Gilbert, Stetson’s ace, in the Chapel Hill Super Regional, the Tar Heels laid off of Heimlich’s breaking ball and locked in on his fastball, drilling the pitch with every opportunity. Like Gilbert, Heimlich is known for pitching off of his fastball, typically commanding it on the corners low in the zone. UNC knew his M.O. coming in.
“Countless hours go into the preparation,” said Casparius, a freshman desingated hitter who placed in his first game since suffering a stress fracture in his foot on May 11. “And obviously a good pitcher like him, we had to really control the zone, which we did. We didn't really swing out of the zone at many pitches, which is what gave us the upper hand.”
Still, that offensive explosion could’ve been for nothing if the UNC bullpen couldn’t contain the equally explosive Beavers. The bullpen has been a strength for the Tar Heels all season, and through a combination of O’Brien, Brett Daniels, Joey Lancellotti, Josh Hiatt and projected Monday starter Cooper Criswell, those arms managed to keep the Beavers mostly in check. And with each throwing roughly 30 pitches (Criswell was the only to top 30 pitches with 34), it’s likely that most, if not all, of those pitchers should be available in Monday night’s winners' bracket showdown with Mississippi State. Criswell may or may not start; if he doesn’t go, sophomore Austin Bergner is the likely Game 2 starter choice.
“We take a lot of pride in our bullpen and in our depth and guys being ready,” Woodard said. “Just kind of mentally I said we were going to try to ride each reliever as long as we could. We were going to evaluate once we got to the point of he’s not going to be available Monday and then make the decision to leave him in and ride him or if we felt like we had another option or a better matchup and a guy’s still going to be ready for Monday, then we go to the next guy.
“They were bulldogs and that’s one of the best offenses in the country and we knew that coming in. They put a lot of good swings on us. We were going to go 15 rounds with our bullpen, try to trade punches. Our defense made great plays.”
The cleanliness of UNC’s defense, in contrast to Oregon State’s miscues, was a clear difference-maker in such a tightly contested game. Fittingly, Martorano made perhaps the most crucial defensive play in the eighth, when he fired behind OSU shortstop Cadyn Grenier at first base and picked him off for the first out of that inning, squanching a potential rally.
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“I just want to give a shoutout to Brandon Martorano because it was mighty hard for him to do, to go out there, because (him and Attianese) have been friends ever since they were kids,” Fox said. “And I thought Brandon Martorano made the biggest play there picking that guy off. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure he was going to play today.”
Not only did he play, but Martorano scored twice and made the pivotal pickoff in the eighth. All the while, he wore Attianese’s No. 39 on his wrist and tweeted the No. 39 immediately after UNC’s win.
“Words cannot even begin to describe the sadness I feel at the loss of one of my best friends,” Martorano said in an Instagram tribute Saturday.
“I’m beyond lucky to have spent the 11 years we did together growing up and playing baseball. We shared a 9x11 dorm room for an entire year and there is nobody else I would’ve rather done it with.
“There was never a day you didn’t have a smile on your face or wasn’t putting one on mine.”