Where Have the Bats Gone in Omaha?

OMAHA, Neb. – The story has been the same for four long years. North Carolina's bats power the program through the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, only to vanish once the plane touches down in Omaha. With elimination staring the Tar Heels directly in the face on Tuesday, the search is on.




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The statistics are telling. Since this College World Series run started back in 2006, North Carolina has tallied 210 runs in 21 Regional and Super Regional appearances – good for a 10.0 run-per-game average. In 19 CWS showings during the same time frame, the Tar Heels have managed just 88 runs, which drops the scoring average down to 4.6 runs per outing.

In the first two rounds of NCAA play, UNC has totaled eight runs or more in 15 of 21 games, but that eight-run plateau has only been surpassed twice in the 19 College World Series contests.

Obviously, pitching talent ratchets up a notch out here in the land of steaks and Warren Buffet, but that hasn't stopped a flurry of scoring at Rosenblatt Stadium from occurring in early competition. With six participants ranking in the nation's top-10 in team ERA, Arizona State is the only one of those programs to hold its opponent below five runs, stifling the Tar Heels in Sunday's 5-2 victory.

It's also worth noting that 2008 national champion Fresno State tied the all-time CWS record for most runs by a team in a series with 62, and that Oregon State averaged 8.4 runs per outing in racing to the '07 title. Scoring may not be easy in Omaha, but it's not as difficult as the Tar Heels have made it look.

Head coach Mike Fox was asked about the drop in production at the College World Series after practice on Monday, and he was candid in his response.

"That's a good question – I probably can't give you a quantifiable answer from year to year, because I think every game is different out here," the 11th-year UNC head coach said. "Yes, the pitching is usually good out here. It's really good, I think, this year, but [on Saturday], Virginia and LSU were hitting the ball all over the place against supposedly their No. 1s. So I can't answer that. I really don't know the answer to that. I wish we were averaging more than that out here."

Fox indicated that he did not closely scrutinize his batters' execution against the Sun Devils, but he did acknowledge that things were amiss on Sunday afternoon.

"I don't know if we were tight, we just didn't do some things you have to do to win out here," Fox said. "You take a pitch when you're supposed to be getting it down for a bunt, you swing at a pitch that's up and out when you're looking for a pitch that's down and in to pull the ball…

"We just didn't have our whole team [clicking] on all cylinders, and you have to out here. You've got a couple that are misfiring in certain situations and it keeps your team from sometimes having success."

Making the situation even that much more difficult is the fact that North Carolina has failed to capitalize on several strong pitching performances over the years, highlighted by Daniel Bard's gem in the final loss of the 2006 College World Series, in which the current Red Sox pitcher tossed 7 2/3 innings of six-hit, one-earned-run ball. Alex White's showing on Sunday – 9.0 innings, seven hits, one earned run and 12 strikeouts – stands as a close second in missed opportunities.

And while it's tough to criticize a coach that has lifted this North Carolina program from obscurity and directed it to four straight CWS appearances, even Fox is not infallible.

With North Carolina heading to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and the score against ASU knotted at 1-1, designated hitter Jacob Stallings singled to left field with one out, bringing struggling leadoff hitter Ben Bunting to the batter's box. But instead of Fox calling for a sacrifice bunt to move pinch runner Ryan Norton to second base – thus setting the stage for living legend Dustin Ackley to swing with a runner in scoring position – Bunting struck out for the fourth time in five chances.

Ackley then delivered a picture-perfect snapshot of UNC's batting display in Omaha, as Major League Baseball's No. 2 overall draft pick watched a Mitchell Lambson 2-2 pitch catch the outside corner for the final out of the inning.

There's no denying that North Carolina's dart-throwing crew has been the driving force for this program during this recent run, and solid pitching always gives you a fighting chance – see UNC's 5-1 record in bracket elimination games in '07 and '08 – but the luck at the plate must change for the program's first national championship to be carted back to Chapel Hill.

Only three teams have lost their first game in the CWS and come back to win the title in the past 30 years, and it doesn't help that senior hurler Adam Warren is facing a Southern Miss squad on Tuesday that has belted 16 homeruns in seven NCAA postseason contests.

"It's just one of those things where you've just got to figure out how to win," senior right-fielder Garrett Gore said.

For the Tar Heel bats, it's better late than never.

Gore Moving Past 10th-inning Error

Both Fox and Arizona State head coach Pat Murphy alluded to a swirling wind in right field that may have factored into the senior's critical drop on a routine pop fly with one out in Sun Devils' top-half of the inning.

But Gore wouldn't place the blame on Mother Nature following practice on Monday.

"It wasn't the wind," the Wilmington, N.C. native said. "I had that ball all of the way in. I was looking it in. I had sunglasses on, so I was seeing it all right and then it moved right in the middle of the sun. I tried to stick with it, but it got the best of me."

Gore was in good spirits on Monday, but he admitted that Sunday night was rough.

"It ate me up yesterday, I'm going to be honest with you," Gore said. "I was a little frustrated about it. I hated that happened at the time it did because the days are counting down on my season and in my baseball career. I hate to be any part of ending it, but just watching that ball when it fell is one of those feelings that baseball gives to you, because it will whip you. But other than that, it changed the way the game kind of went. You've got to shake it off and be ready for [Tuesday]."

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