If you are a baseball purist that revels in a superb pitching display, then Sunday afternoon's duel between UNC's Alex White and ASU's Josh Spence delivered a rare treat in the college baseball landscape. After the first two College World Series games totaled 30 runs on Saturday, the duo combined for only two earned runs, 15 hits and 20 strikeouts in 16.0 innings.
"[It was] a terrific game, I thought," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters during his postgame press conference. "Two outstanding pitchers going head-to-head. You see why Alex White is so highly regarded, and their lefty, too – Spence – I thought he was terrific."
It's almost fitting that neither pitcher picked up the win or loss, as both hurlers used different methods in neutralizing the opposing batters' bats.
White (9.0 innings, 7 hits, 1 ER, 12 so) burned the corner with a consistently blazing fastball – registering 91 mph in the top of the 9th inning – while Spence (7.0 innings, 8 hits, 1 ER, 8 so) performed magic with a variety of off-speed pitches to confuse the Tar Heels.
The Greenville, N.C. right-hander set a UNC record for strikeouts in a CWS with his 12 scratches, matching his career high for the second straight start. He now has seven double-digit strikeout games in his career, including back-to-back starts for the first time in his career.
"Cleveland's got a good one," said Arizona State head coach Pat Murphy, referring to the Indians drafting White with the No. 15 overall pick last week. "It's not just about stuff – that kid competed. Every big situation we had, he turned it up a notch. You knew you were in a fight with someone that was pretty special. I think that's why Cleveland needs to pay him even more than they've set out to pay him. He's pretty special."
Zack MacPhee (1-of-4, RBI) doubled in the Sun Devils' first run in the second, while Garrett Gore (2-of-5) returned the favor with a single up the middle in the sixth.
It wasn't until both White and Spence were out of the game – in the 10th inning – that the bats came alive. Unfortunately for North Carolina, it was the Sun Devils that did the bulk of the damage. With runners on first and second and one out, Carlos Ramirez (1-of-4, RBI) singled up the middle to score the winning run. Kole Calhoun then put the exclamation point on the victory, bombing a three-run home run over the left-centerfield wall.
"I got the 1-1 pitch up into the wind, and the wind took over," Calhoun said. "… [Murphy] told me before that at-bat just to take what he gives me and hit it into left center, and fortunately, it got up into the air and got out of here."
Mitchell Lambson (9-3, 3.0 innings, 1 ER, 3 hits) picked up the victory, while Colin Bates (4-3, 1/3 inning, 1 ER, 1 hit) took the loss, although Brian Moran (2/3 inning, 2 ER, 3 hits) joined him with the late-inning struggles.
Levi Michael added a UNC RBI in the bottom of the 10th, but it was not enough to prevent an early trip to the losers' bracket. The Tar Heels will face the winner of the Texas/Southern Miss contest on Tuesday at 2pm in an elimination game.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Costly Mistake in Right Field
With Drew Maggi standing on first base with one out in the 10th inning, Pac-10 Player of the Year Jason Kipnis hit a 1-2 pitch off Brian Moran to deep right field. It appeared to be a routine fly ball for Gore, but the ball somehow managed to pop out of the savvy senior's glove.
All of a sudden, the Sun Devils had runners at first and second with one out and team's leader in RBI – Ramirez's 72 – standing at the plate. To make matters worse, Maggi erred in his base running, winding up closer to third than first on Kipnis' pop-up. Had Gore made the catch, a double play to first to end the inning was all but assured.
"I'm not exactly sure what happened out there," Fox said. "The wind was kind of swirling a bit… It was just one of those unfortunate things. I feel bad for Garrett. It happens."
For a young man playing in his 19th career College World Series – which stands in second place all-time – the error will stay with him much longer than it should. His play and role in the clubhouse has been critical to UNC's four-year run to Omaha.
"I feel for that young man," Murphy said. "I know he's been to Omaha a couple of times before – at least, if he's playing on that club – and I'm sure he's done a lot to get this team there."
A Questionable Decision Pays Off
It seemed obvious all week long – Arizona State would send Mike Leake to the mound on Sunday against North Carolina. After all, the junior righty only posted a 16-1 record with a 1.36 ERA this season before being selected by Cincinnati with the No. 8 overall pick in the MLB Draft last Tuesday.
Isn't it only logical to throw your best pitcher out of the gates in Omaha?
Not so for Murphy. While he joked in the postgame that the decision to pitch his Australian lefty was due to his "brilliance," the move was an aggressive one to counter UNC's left-handed dominant bats with a left-hander while setting up a potential second-game matchup against Texas' right-handed heavy lineup with Leake.
Murphy indicated that he conferred with good friend Tim Corbin, who serves as the head coach at Vanderbilt, shortly after eliminating Clemson in the Super Regionals last weekend.
"After we beat [Clemson], I immediately said, ‘Hey, I think I'm going to go Spence first game, if I'm hearing right about North Carolina,'" Murphy said. "And Corbin said, ‘Yeah, I think that's the way to go,' and [pitching coach] Josh Holliday watched the film and he came back and said, ‘Murph, I think that's a good move – let's go Spence.'"
The decision obviously paid off.
"He threw a lot of off-speed," UNC third baseman Kyle Seager said. "He threw off-speed in fastball counts. He mixed it up really well. He moved it in-and-out, and he did a good job of keeping us off balanced, I guess."
Atrocity in Leadoff
Two of the best hitters in the nation – UNC's Dustin Ackley and ASU's Kipnis – bat second in their respective lineups. With such immense talent waiting on deck behind them, leadoff hitters Ben Bunting (UNC) and Maggi (ASU) failed to show up on Sunday.
The duo combined to strikeout their first six trips to the plate, all swinging. Bunting ended up 0-of-5 on the day with four strikeouts, while leaving three men on base. Maggi (1-of-5, 3 so, 3 lob), on the other hand, got the last laugh – he scored the go ahead run in the 10th after a single down the right-field line.