The Bulldogs started their No. 4 pitcher in Justin Miller (three earned runs, seven hits, 4.0 innings) on Tuesday night, and the Tar Heels pounced on him in the top of the fourth inning, using a Tim Fedroff triple, a Kyle Seager double and a Chad Flack single to build a 3-1 lead.
And when North Carolina put runners on first and second with no outs in the fifth, forcing Fresno St. head coach Mike Batesole to go to his bullpen, most in attendance at Rosenblatt Stadium expected the Bulldogs' improbable run to glory to take a sharp, yet expected, detour to the losers' bracket.
But the Cinderella team from California did what its done during the entire 2008 postseason – play solid ball and pull out wins against teams with better records and supposedly better players.
Relief pitchers Kris Tomlinson (0.2 innings) and Jason Breckley (WP, 0.1 innings)– both of whom sport earned run averages north of 7.13 – joined veterans Brandon Burke (one hit in 1.1 innings) and Holden Sprague (three hits in 2.2 innings) in holding UNC scoreless over the final five innings and stranding seven runners during that stretch.
After the early inning success, it appeared as though the Carolina batters grew impatient at the plate, swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone instead of effectively working through the counts.
"I threw some pitches out of the zone that I got a couple of swings on and a couple of easy groundballs," Burke said after picking up his 13th save of the season. "Their aggressiveness helped out a lot, though, as well. In the earlier innings, they were getting some better pitches to hit and they weren't going to miss them. That's a great hitting team over there, and to be able to keep them down to three wins speaks volumes."
In all, the Tar Heels left 10 runners on base, none bigger than when seniors Chad Flack and Seth Williams singled in the eighth inning to give pinch-hitter Garrett Gore a chance with two outs to put UNC in the lead. He grounded out to third base, squashing Carolina's last legitimate scoring threat.
"We just couldn't get a big hit," Fox said. "We couldn't get a two-out hit, which I think you have to on this stage to advance."
Meanwhile, Fresno State scattered 13 hits to UNC's 11, using homeruns from Steve Susdorf and Ryan Overland and RBI singles from Erik Wetzel and Alan Ahmady (2 RBI) to slowly work out of the early deficit and move to within one win of the championship series.
The Bulldogs put their leadoff hitter on base in six innings, including their last five. But after the bullpen's struggles all postseason long, Brian Moran (one hit in 0.2 innings) and Rob Wooten (three hits, one ER in 3.1 innings) performed admirably in teaming with starter Adam Warren (four ER, nine hits in 4.0 innings) to strand 12 Bulldog base runners.
"We dodged several bullets there with the bases loaded and no outs," Fox said. "We look up and we're in that situation twice… The score could have actually been much worse. I credit our guys on the mound for making some big pitches and at least keeping the game close where at least we had a shot."
The Tar Heels find themselves in familiar territory – UNC lost to Rice last season in its second CWS game before rallying to win three straight elimination games to reach the championship series for the second straight year.
"Once you get in the losers' bracket, it's always tough," Flack said. "But you've just got to go out and take it one game at a time and one inning at a time and just try to go out there and play your kind of baseball. And if you do that, and you execute everything that you need to execute, then you have a good chance of coming back."
North Carolina will face No. 7 seed LSU for the second time in five days on Thursday night at 7 p.m. (ESPN2).