"We just didn't have a lot of things go right for us tonight, and Fresno State had a lot to do with that," UNC head coach Mike Fox said.
North Carolina nearly battled all of the way out of the losers' bracket with late-inning homeruns to secure victories over LSU and Fresno State on Friday and Saturday, respectively, but an absence of timely hitting and a worn-out pitching staff presented too many obstacles for the Tar Heels to mount a successful charge at a third-straight appearance in the NCAA championship series.
The highlight bombs by Tim Federowicz (1-3) and Chad Flack (1-3) only served to mask the batting issues plaguing North Carolina in the College World Series this week, and Sunday's elimination game was no exception. Dustin Ackley (3-5) and Tim Fedroff (3-5) combined for six of the Tar Heels' 10 hits, and Kyle Shelton's bases loaded walk in the fourth inning was UNC's lone RBI.
North Carolina left 10 men on base on this night, and in five total contests in Omaha, the Tar Heels left 43 men on base while scoring just 23 runs.
Fresno State starting pitcher Clayton Allison (4-5), battling tendonitis in his throwing shoulder, was efficient in six innings, allowing just one earned run and six hits. Holden Sprague (two hits in 1.0 innings) and Brandon Burke (two hits in 2.0 innings) came on in relief to finish the job for a California squad that was never ranked during the regular season.
The Bulldogs' splendid defensive efforts only added to the Tar Heels' frustration at the plate.
"They made every play defensively against us," Fox said. "The short stop and third baseman were sensational. We looked back at the stats and they've made some errors during the year, but boy, they play just terrific… That's the thing that stood out – they played terrific defensively."
With North Carolina trying to spark an 8th-inning rally, Bulldogs second baseman Erik Wetzel scrambled to his left to field a Kyle Seager bouncer and then made a running throw to first for the improbable out. And then not to be outdone, short stop Danny Muno made a hustle play for a force out at second to kill the Tar Heels' chances.
"I thought towards the end of the game, we really hit the ball pretty hard," UNC senior Chad Flack said. "That's just the way baseball is sometimes. Sometimes they catch it, sometimes they don't. But I think they played well on defense and took a couple of hits away from us."
The North Carolina pitching staff had been phenomenal in the four games heading into this elimination clash, allowing just 15 runs and 32 hits, but the fatigue of playing three games in three days was obvious on the mound on Sunday.
Adam Warren was knocked out early after walking four Fresno St. batters in 1 2/3 innings, and then Brian Moran (LP, 1-2, two ER in 1 1/3 innings), Rob Wooten (one ER in 1/3 inning) and Alex White (two ER in 1 2/3 innings) all pitched for the third consecutive day, joining Colin Bates, Rob Catapano and Tyler Trice in the box score.
"I think we probably asked a little too much out of those guys, and that's really a difficult part of getting out here and then getting in the losers' bracket and having to manage your pitchers," Fox said. "You want to run the pitchers out there that had the most impact on getting you here within reason. I struggled with that today, and I think most coaches do at the end of year, about exactly how much you're supposed to ask out of your kids."
In all, the UNC hurlers combined to walk eight batters, and three more reached when hit by a pitch. Fresno State scattered 10 hits against four pitchers, led by Tommy Mendonca's three hits and four RBI.
Mendonca's two-out, two-run RBI single in the third inning put the Bulldogs up 2-0, and after UNC's bases loaded walk run in the fourth cut the deficit to 2-1, Muno and Mendonca added RBIs in consecutive innings to boost the lead to 4-1. Mendonca and Alan Ahmady each added RBIs in the sixth inning for the final margin of victory.
"The end of the year is not ever fun," Fox said. "It's actually the worst – [it's bad] no matter where you are – but especially out here. We're going to tend to focus on the whole season. We kind of have to, to get over the hurt."
North Carolina finishes the season with a 54-14 record. The Tar Heels have posted the top three win totals in school history over the last three years (54, 57 and 54) and lead the nation with 165 wins in 2006-08. UNC is the only team to win 50-plus games in each of the last three years.