First Inning Pitching Woes Bury North Carolina's Season
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Approximately 48 minutes into the decisive Game 3 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional, North Carolina's dreams of a second consecutive trip to Omaha and the College World Series were tested by a 13-run deficit.
It was more than an hour into a game that lasted three hours and 36 minutes that North Carolina was finally able to enter the dugout, but not before Auburn scored 13 runs on nine hits and five walks spanning four UNC pitchers, the second-most runs in any single inning in NCAA Tournament history.
The Tar Heels are familiar with long competitions. The opening game of the 2018 College World Series versus Oregon State lasted 4 hours and 24 minutes, and North Carolina prevailed in the longest game in CWS history. But on Monday against Auburn, there was never enough time for the Tar Heels to overcome the insurmountable 13-run deficit.
In only his second start of the year, North Carolina righthander Joey Lancelotti took the mound. The sophomore had served as the top threat out of the Tar Heels' bullpen for most of the season, striking out 56 batters and recording three saves in 52 innings and 26 appearances.
Lancelotti's only other start this season came in a mid-week tilt against Campbell in which he lasted 2.1 innings, faced 13 batters and allowed one run on two hits while striking out one and walking a pair. That lone start, which occurred nearly three months ago, didn't phase the North Carolina coaching staff, which decided to turn to one of their top arms with its season on the line.
"That's the guy we wanted on the mound, and he just didn't have it today," said North Carolina first baseman Michael Busch. "It's just how baseball works, and today was one of those days."
Eleven of Lancelotti's first 12 pitches were balls, and he ended up walking the only four batters he faced before North Carolina head coach Mike Fox decided to pull him from the game. Unfortunately for Fox and the Tar Heels, no pitching change could stop the bleeding.
Righthander Connor Ollio replaced Lancelloti and gave UNC some brief momentum with a strikeout of the first batter he faced, but that hope wouldn't last long as the Tigers continued their hitting ways, squaring up seemingly every strike that came their way.
Auburn leadoff hitter Judd Ward—in his second at-bat of the first inning—hit a home run off of North Carolina righthander Hansen Butler, who replaced Ollio, and the small but vocal contingent of Tiger fans went crazy as a trip to Omaha became even more of a reality.
Eventually freshman Will Sandy replaced Butler and settled the game down, but by that time Auburn was already up 11-0 and seemed on the doorstep of clinching a College World Series berth, despite it still being the top of the first inning. Sandy allowed only one earned run over the next 5.2 innings, and without his performance the result may have been even worse.
North Carolina was able to get off the mat with a trio of home runs, including two long balls from freshman slugger Aaron Sabato, but in the end it was the half-inning from hell that resulted in a devastating loss to end the Tar Heels' season.
Fox spoke with heavy emotions after the game, consistently citing how much he enjoyed coaching the 2019 Tar Heels.
“They really make you still believe in coaching and why you do it. This is why I do it, this team, and I’ll forever be thankful for that as I get to the end of my career," Fox said. "People don't understand when you're a coach and around these kids all day, they're like your children, they're like your family. You always hate to see your family broken up. That's kind of what happens at the end of the year."