Vanderbilt (53-10) struck first with Aaron Westlake's RBI sacrifice fly in the opening frame, but North Carolina (50-15) answered with a Colin Moran RBI single in the bottom half of the inning and then took the lead with Seth Baldwin's RBI single into left field in the second inning.
Curt Casali delivered another RBI sacrifice fly for the Commodores in the top of the third. UNC retook the lead when Moran was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the fourth. Vanderbilt took command in the sixth inning as Conrad Gregor doubled in a run off the left field wall to tie the score. In the next at-bat, Conner Harrell hit a towering shot down the left field line that cleared the Tar Heel bullpen to put the Commodores up 5-3.
Tony Kemp and Anthony Gomez hit back-to-back RBI singles in the eighth inning to finalize the scoring.
Corey Williams (2-0, 2.2 IP, 2 hits) picked up the victory for Vanderbilt. Patrick Johnson (13-2) suffered his first loss since Apr. 15, matching his season-high with five runs (four earned) on six hits in 6.0 innings pitched.
INSIDE THE GAME
Conquering Gray Without Results
Recent first-round draft pick Sonny Gray carried a 12-3 record with a 1.97 earned run average into Saturday's opener, but departed with a humbling line – 4.2 IP, eight hits, three earned runs and five walks. It was his shortest outing since his season opener on Feb. 18 and his five walks were a season-high. Add in a hit by pitch and Gray had 14 base runners out of 27 batters faced.
But despite battering and bruising Oakland's top overall selection, North Carolina stranded 10 base runners against the right hander. That number increased to 12 left on base through six innings and eventually to a season-high 16 by the time the game was complete.
"It seemed like it was almost a two-half game," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters during his postgame press conference. "The first half we really hurt ourselves not taking advantage of the opportunities we had in the first four or five innings. You look up and we have ten hits and they've walked us six times and two hit batters, 18 base runners.
"Of course, I looked on [the stat sheet] and saw we left 16 men on base. That's pretty much the tale of the game for us, offensively."
With eight Commodore pitchers drafted two weeks ago, the Tar Heels knew that they would have to capitalize when presented with scoring windows. And while they had Gray on the ropes early, they could never deliver the knockout punch.
UNC left five men on base against Gray in scoring position. Once Vanderbilt's deep bullpen entered the game, the Tar Heels were unable to push any runs across the plate.
"They buckled down, especially when they had runners on base, when they had two outs," UNC left fielder Chaz Frank said. "I think their crowd got them into it. They just made good pitches and we weren't able to get timely hitting like we've been doing all year."
Michael's Struggles Continue
Shortstop Levi Michael's junior season has resembled a roller coaster at the plate, batting .500 in his first 12 games before hitting .167 over his next 13 games. In the month of April, Michael hit .386 and drew 19 walks for a .560 on base percentage.
But the ride has bottomed out once again during the postseason. Michael entered the College World Series hitting .182 (4-of-22) without a RBI and seven strikeouts in five NCAA Tournament games. On Saturday, the Welcome, N.C. native was 0-of-4 with a walk and a strikeout, but the actual at-bats were even less impressive.
With Vanderbilt leading 1-0 in the bottom of the first inning, Michael stepped to the plate with Chaz Frank on third with no outs and hit a dribbler back to the pitcher for an easy out. UNC led 2-1 with runners on first and second in the second inning and Michael grounded out to first base to end the threat.
And with the Tar Heels threatening to blow the game open with bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning, Michael swung on his first pitch and popped up to short left field to hold the runners. Finally, the junior struck out looking with a runner on second base in the eighth inning.
Fox told reporters that he may move Michael out of the 2-hole on Monday.
"He's trying as hard as he can, certainly, and he's getting pitched pretty well, also," Fox said. "But he can't get anything going. And he's been up there with guys in scoring position, and he got himself out on the one-pitch. We got a four-pitch walk right before he gets up there, bases loaded and swings to the first pitch that was a ball.
"That's because he's pressing a little bit, trying too hard; and no matter how poorly you're swinging it, you still want to have that good ball strike recognition and swinging at strikes, nothing else. Hopefully we'll get him back on track the next game."
North Carolina will play the loser of Saturday night's matchup between Florida and Texas on Monday at 2pm EST in an elimination game.
Losing the first game of the College World Series has not necessarily been a death knell to schools in recent years. Oregon State lost its 2006 opener to Miami, 11-1, before winning six of its next seven to win the national championship. South Carolina lost its opener to Oklahoma, 4-3, last season before winning six straight games to win the title.