North Carolina shrugged off a four-run Bulldog outburst in the second inning, ringing up six scores of their own in the decisive sixth to take charge of Friday's first-round bracket game. UNC (54-13) advances to a 6:00 Sunday game with Rice, a 15-10 winner Friday over Louisville. The Bulldogs (38-21) and Cardinals, who blew a big lead of their own in that earlier loss, meet in a 1:00 elimination game.
Friday followed a familiar UNC late-season script, where the Tar Heels have scored six comeback wins including two in last weekend's super regional against South Carolina. And even up 4-0 so soon the Dogs understood this one wasn't won. The fears were unfortunately accurate.
"We got some runs early but when we came back in the dugout we knew it wouldn't be enough," said C Edward Easley. "We didn't keep pounding runs and they did a good job coming back."
It was a great job by UNC's offense in that sixth, when after an opening out they took advantage of a hit batter, hit, and missed grounder to change the evening entirely. Mississippi State pitching did hand the ‘Heels some help and afterwards Bulldog defenders pointed to a juncture where things could have been kept in check. Still there was an uncomfortable sense of inevitability to how things developed.
Especially once Carolina's stalwart relief staff was handed a lead to work with, another trademark of their late season. "(Coach) Mike Fox said I like your club," said Polk. "I said I like your bullpen." A group that almost shut State out for the last seven-plus innings, with starter-turned-reliever Adam Warren (11-0) getting the decision on a superb 4.1-frame middle stretch. That was after starter Robert Woodard posted his shortest stint of the season, 1.2 innings for four runs on seven hits.
State southpaw Justin Pigott had been a tournament-time stalwart for three starts, winning the crucial NCAA outings against Florida State and Clemson. A third time out against another ACC power wasn't as charming. Pigott (7-7) gave up a pair of Carolina runs in the fourth inning, then suffered that sixth-inning onslaught with four of the scores charged to his account.
He worked 5.1 official with six runs (four earned) on eight hits, a pair of walks and three strikeouts. "My changeup was good, my slider was good at times," Pigott said. "I thought we had a real good approach early."
Woodard came to no harm his first inning on a leadoff hit by 2B Jeffrey Rea. The second turn was an entirely different matter as the Bulldogs batted around and battered the starter out of action. Easley knew something about the righthander and told teammates to look for hitable curveballs. "We took advantage of that," the catcher said. 1B Brian LaNinfa got it started by bouncing a base hit up the middle and on 2-2 LF Joseph McCaskill's drive dropped, then skipped past the diving rightfielder for a double. LaNinfa was held at third base at the last instant, and Polk's discretion paid off. Because 3B Russ Sneed gapped a drive to right-centerfield for a pair of RBI. SS Jet Butler followed with a single that had Dogs on corners and still no outs.
DH Connor Powers provided that with his deep fly ball to the right-field track for a sacrifice and Sneed run home. Rea bunted Butler into scoring position which is what the shortstop did on Turner's single through the right side for a 4-0 State lead. It could have been more as Easley doubled for Dogs in scoring spots before Woodard could be replaced by righthander Warren, who rolled an inning-ending grounder.
"If we get a base hit it's 6-0," Polk said. "And that could change the ballgame." At it was the Tar Heels were still in their idea of striking distance.
Pigott had lone runners in both the first (error) and second (hit) innings, to no effect. An out into the second things got more challenging with a double by nine-batter Garrett Gore and a full-count walk of Reid Fronk. Pigott produced a fly-out, then Easley caught Fronk leading off a step too far.
Next time around though a leadoff walk led to bigger troubles. With one out and Dustin Ackley on first base consecutive singles by Josh Horton and Chad Flack got North Carolina on the scoreboard. "I was getting behind in the count and they made good adjustments," said Pigott. He had two down when Benji Johnson bounced a ball that shortstop Butler just couldn't quite get to for another RBI hit and 4-2 margin through four full frames.
A line-out/double-play erased a fifth-inning runner, and Pigott was a strikeout into the sixth before plunking Horton to get the bullpen busy. Flack singled to have the scoring ‘Heels on sacks and Seth Williams got ahead 3-1 before ripping into a changeup and one-hopping it past Sneed to make it 4-3 on the charged error.
"I tried to get in front of it, block it up. It took a bad hop under my glove and wasn't nothing I could," said Sneed. "But if I make that play we could have got a double-play, probably a totally different outcome."
As it was, up in another RBI opportunity Johnson came through with a drive that carried to the leftfield wall for a double, 4-4 deadlock, and pitching change. John Lalor inherited a jam with runners both in positions to score and only one out still. He immediately made it more serious by walking Gore on four tosses, bringing around the top of UNC's order.
That trio of left-handed swingers had done little to this point. Now they accounted for four fast runs to put the Tarheels in control. Lalor hit Fronk to force in the go-ahead run, and Tim Fedroff's fly-out to left was sufficient to sacrifice in Johnson with the other two runners advancing as well. That mattered because Ackley could score both on a base knock over shortstop.
"From that point in time they took care of the ball game," Polk said.
Tim Federowicz followed with a single of his own to have runners on opposite corners and Ricky Bowen taking the hill for a fly-ball to end the inning, but with the Bulldogs now down 8-4 with nine outs left.
They used up two of them in the top of the seventh before Moreland completely crushed a 1-0 offering from Rob Wooten over the centerfield wall, his 10th homer of the season. "It was a fastball and he got behind in the count, I was looking for a pitch over the plate I could handle." Nobody was on a bag, though, so State still trailed by a trio. Bowen kept it there despite the leading two batters of UNC's seventh reaching on an infield hit and walk, scampering to first himself for the relay that nipped Fronk before Federowicz could score from third base.
But State wasn't scoring again either, as Andrew Carnigan closed out the evening in ninth-inning order to get his 16th save of the year. The Bulldogs matched North Carolina with a dozen hits apiece and had more extra-base knocks, five to two.
"We got their ace out, we did a great job putting the ball in play and getting a 4-run lead," Polk said. "But from that point the key was expand the lead." And, snaring one well-timed stop in the field. "Make a play and maybe win the ball game."
The Bulldogs didn't and now have to take care of Louisville to extend their stay in Omaha. And they do intend to hang around longer, noting nothing is over yet. "Last year Oregon State lost the first game of the World Series," said Easley of the 2006 national champions. "We're going to think positive and come out and play hard against Louisville. And who knows what could happen."
State will practice Saturday at noon at nearby Creighton University, while the four teams in the other bracket play their games. The survivor of Sunday's afternoon contest will await a Wednesday match with the loser of the Rice-North Carolina game.