OMAHA, Neb.— The whole thing started with such promise for the purple and gold, LSU leadoff man Michael Hollander smacking the kind of King Kong-sized home run that has made a term like “gorilla ball” exist.
Only four pitches into the game and already that familiar chant was echoing throughout Rosenblatt Stadium: L…S…U….. L…S…U.
Looked like another loud Tiger party at the College World Series was about to break out. And then things got eerily quiet. The gorilla got caged. North Carolina pitcher Alex White shook off his ominous beginning and took over the game.
The Tigers tried to rally late, even bringing the tying run to the plate in the eighth inning. But the hole was too deep – a bad call didn’t help – and an 8-4 North Carolina win has the Tigers already facing elimination in Omaha.
“You just can’t look at it being like we’re one game way from going home,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “I’ve been in this position before where you lose the first game of the tournament, and if you start thinking in terms of winning the tournament, what you have to do, it seems like such a daunting task. It’s overwhelming. And what I’ve got to get the kids to do is focus on playing better on Tuesday and winning that game.”
LSU’s foe for Tuesday’s 1 p.m. game is a Rice team that got drummed 17-5 by Fresno State Sunday afternoon.
To win that game, Mainieri knows his team will have to pitch much better than it did against the Tar Heels. North Carolina had 17 hits against six LSU pitchers.
“We singled them to death,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said, and he was right. Fifteen of his team’s hits were singles.
The Tar Heels showed off their small-ball mindset from the outset, immediately responding to Hollander’s home run in the bottom of the first, loading the bases with three singles (two of them infield hits) before an out could be recorded.
“All of a sudden, it’s bases loaded, nobody out, and I’m feeling like our kid’s throwing the ball really well,” Mainieri said of his starter Ryan Verdugo, who would last just 3.2 innings and give up 10 hits and six runs.
The Tar Heels kept the heat on after scoring three in the first, adding two in the third, one in the fourth, one in the fifth, and a final one in the seventh that made it 8-2.
That eighth run came after LSU left fielder Jared Mitchell misjudged a pop fly, turning a routine inning-ending out into an RBI double.
“I think they swung the bats well against us, but at the same time we helped them. We had some pretty mediocre defense,” Mainieri said.
But the real difference was White, the UNC right-hander (11-3) who went seven-plus innings and allowed just four hits.
“His slider was really biting and we weren’t really making the best decisions at the plate,” Hollander said. “We were kind of swinging at some bad pitches.”
It was after the Tigers got White out of the game in the eighth inning that they finally started to show what their bats can do.
Hollander got the rally started by reaching first on a bunt to leadoff the inning. Fox promptly took out White, who had thrown 109 pitches.
Fox’s relievers didn’t fare as well as his starter. Mitchell greeted the new pitcher, Brian Moran, with a single to left. Blake Dean hit another single. Moran then walked Micah Gibbs to bring in a run, still nobody out.
But Moran followed that with a big strikeout of Matt Clark, who had earlier hit his 27th home run of the season off White in the second inning. Despite Clark's out, LSU used an infield hit to scratch across another run and load the bases, down 8-4, one out.
Enter the controversy.
Leon Landry hit a bouncing ball right at second base. UNC’s shortstop, Ryan Graepel, stepped on second for an out and then threw to first to try to get a double play.
Replays showed Landry beat out the throw, but the ump called him out. Mainieri emerged from the dugout, letting fly some choice words at first-base umpire Jack Cox.
“Obviously it was a big call. It would have made the score 8 to 5. We still would have had the tying run at the plate with a guy who has 12 home runs for us,” Mainieri said. “But you don’t know how that stuff’s going to play out. The umpire made the call the way he saw it and we have to live with it. But obviously it was a big momentum-breaker for us at that point.”
Mainieri expects his team will bring a better product to the field on Tuesday. He’s sure there were some nerves on display for a team that hadn’t been on the CWS stage since 2004.
UNC, meanwhile, has a roster full of guys familiar with the Omaha setting. The Tar Heels were national runners-up the past two seasons and their experience showed.
“They had an aura about them,” Mainieri said. “They were a very confident team and their pitcher set the tone for the game. They’re as good a team as we thought they were.”