Back to Omaha; Heels Finish Off Stanford

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- North Carolina finished off Stanford, 7-5, on Saturday to win its NCAA Super Regional and secure its fifth College World Series trip in the last six years.

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GAME RECAP

Stanford (35-22) notched the first run of the game on Tyler Gaffney's RBI double in the first inning, but the Tar Heels (50-14) scored three runs in the fourth inning to take control of Game 2. Ben Bunting singled into right field to plate a run and Brian Holberton followed his senior teammate by knocking in two more runs on a double down the first baseline.

The Tar Heels continued their seventh-inning scoring success this postseason with three more on Saturday, bringing their eight-game total up to 16 runs. Jesse Wierzbicki reached base on a fielder's choice to score a run with bases loaded and no outs, and Jacob Stallings (3-for-5, 3 RBI) added a two-RBI single into left field.

Brian Ragira hit a RBI single into center field to start Stanford's rally in the eighth inning and Austin Wilson hit a bases-clearing double into the gap in left-center field to plate the final three runs before lightning got involved.

Inclement weather forced a 3-hour, 32-minute rain delay that started with two outs in the top of the ninth inning. UNC restarted the game with a Stallings RBI single to provide some needed insurance.

UNC has won 50 games for the fifth time in school history, joining the 1990 and 2006-2008 squads. North Carolina now leads the nation with 37 postseason wins since 2006.

Kent Emanuel (8-1, 6.0 IP, ER, 5 hits, 5 SO) picked up the win, while Jordan Pries (6-6, 3.1 IP, 3 ER, 6 hits) was handed his sixth loss of the season.

INSIDE THE GAME

Strong Starting Pitching, Shaky Bullpen
National pundits point to North Carolina's bullpen as a reason why the Tar Heels can challenge for the national championship this season, but the starting tandem of Patrick Johnson and Kent Emanuel proved to be the strong point of UNC's pitching staff this weekend.

The righty-lefty combo allowed no runs and 10 hits in 16.0 innings last weekend and was equally as impressive on Friday and Sunday, combining to hold Stanford to two earned runs and 10 hits in 13.2 innings.

Emanuel struggled during a 25-pitch first inning, but settled down and held the Cardinal scoreless with three hits over his next five innings. The freshman southpaw dismissed the notion that jitters played a role in his start.

"I just made a couple of bad pitches," Emanuel told reporters during UNC's postgame press conference. "The guy I hit was on a fastball in, and I wasn't too worried about that because I'd rather miss on the inside than over the plate. So I think it was just a coincidence that it was in the first inning."

North Carolina's bullpen, on the other hand, allowed five earned runs and six hits in 4.1 innings pitched over both games. Closer Michael Morin (1.2 IP, hit, 2 SO) picked up his 10th save with a dominant ninth inning on Saturday, but the sophomore righty allowed all four base runners that he inherited to score over the weekend.

From Home to Omaha
While Omaha has served as a summer vacation spot for the Tar Heels over the past six years, but their home field has provided a bountiful springboard to the College World Series during that stretch.

North Carolina has now won 16 straight postseason games it has hosted. The Tar Heels' average margin of victory during that streak is 6.4 runs per game.

"I don't make light of being at home, but obviously we've had really good players during that streak who have really played at a high level and performed well," UNC head coach Mike Fox said. "But there is a comfort in playing at home. It's pretty obvious throughout our league that it's really difficult to win on the road, so you have to take care of business at home. It's just something you know you have to do.

"Obviously, we love this place and we loved the old Bosh. We like being here and there's a comfort here. Our crowd really, really helped us. That was probably the most disappointing thing to me that we weren't going to be able to finish off today in front of 4,500 people. I thought our players deserved that, but it is what it is and it lets us all know that we're not in control."

Steady Senior Play
Ben Bunting is not the type of player to strike fear in the hearts and minds of opposing pitchers. The senior center fielder entered Saturday's game with a .276 batting average out of the seven-hole with one home run, 37 RBI and a .330 slugging percentage.

But while plenty of talented baseball players shrink in the postseason, Bunting has made a habit out of elevating his play at the plate. The Randleman, N.C. native knocked in UNC's first run on Saturday to tie the score in the fourth inning after giving the Tar Heels an early 1-0 lead on Friday on a RBI single.

For the weekend, Bunting hit 5-for-9 with 2 RBI. For his NCAA postseason career, Bunting is now hitting .370 (27-for-73) with 17 RBI in 18 games.

Throw in a pair of running grabs in center field on Friday and a critical dose of senior leadership and you have a significant piece to UNC's puzzle that stands just outside of the spotlight.

Below the Radar
North Carolina's 5-0 stroll through the NCAAs this postseason has masked the struggles of top hitters Levi Michael and Colin Moran. The Tar Heels have leaned on that duo for 117 RBIs and 148 hits this season, but they have combined to hit .200 (7–for-35) with one RBI, nine strikeouts and four walks during NCAA Tournament action.


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