Reporters waited anxiously in the concrete box that serves as the interview room under Rosenblatt Stadium on Thursday night, as deadlines for the early editions quickly approached. Arizona State head coach Pat Murphy and a couple of his players were already in the back of the room, but the losing team heads to the podium first after a 10-minute cooling down period.
But North Carolina's time to talk with the media was well past the 10-minute mark. Twenty minutes came and went, and only then did UNC head coach Mike Fox quietly walk to the elevated table in front of the television cameras and the horde of reporters.
"Well, I'm not going to apologize for being late because the last time you spend in a locker room with a group of kids that you've grown to love and cherish is hard," Fox said as soon as he sat down. "I had a bunch of young men in that locker room that wanted to say a few words, so they deserved the opportunity to do that."
It would be easy to dwell on the multitude of errors that plagued the Tar Heels in Game 10 of the College World Series – mistakes that took a 4-0 lead and made it a 12-4 deficit in two harsh innings.
Lessons in small ball – such as two Jacob Stallings' sacrifice bunts – and RBI singles by Ryan Graepel and Mike Cavasinni in the fourth inning put UNC on top early. But the game, and North Carolina's national title hopes, started to slip away with a hanging slider that Brian Moran delivered to Kole Calhoun in the bottom of the fifth for a grand slam.
Calhoun had bombed a three-run shot over the left-center field wall in leading ASU to a CWS-opening victory over the Tar Heels on Sunday, and he may as well have booked the airplane tickets back to Chapel Hill with a two-run double in the seventh that opened the flood gates to an eight-run inning.
But Fox made sure everyone knew that his focus was on the great season that his program has had – a 48-18 record with a fourth-straight trip to the College World Series. Such a run has left Tar Heels covering the CWS record books, from most career games (Garrett Gore, 21), hits (Dustin Ackley, 27) and at-bats (Chad Flack, 73).
For Ackley, one final single in the ninth inning in Omaha was a near perfect ending to an unbelievable Tar Heel career.
"I just came in hoping to get a starting job at any position on the field," said Ackley. "… It was a great ride. I can't think of any other guys that I would want to share it with. People dream about playing out here, and my dream was filled except for the national title, but we're not going to think about that. We've had a great year."
INSIDE THE GAME
The Never Ending Inning
Thirteen batters. Eight runs. Five hits. Four walks. Three pitching changes. Two stolen bases. One hit batter. And not to be left out, one passed ball.
All of that and an aggressive batting lineup is how you hang a 12-spot on arguably the top pitching staff in the country.
Jason Kipnis' single to start the inning against Colin Bates (4-4, LP, 0.2 inning, 2 ER, 1 hit, 2 bb) seemed innocent enough, but the towering righty's control issues crept back in with a Carlos Ramirez walk. Calhoun's two-run double obviously hurt, but then it simply became a group effort in a failure to find a way out of the inning.
Patrick Johnson (0.1 inning, 4 ER, 1 hit, 3 bb), Nate Striz (0.0 inning, 2 ER, 2 hits) and Logan Munson (0.2 inning, 1 hit) all took turns try to slay the Sun Devil bats, but in the end, it's almost as though the stanza ended simply because Arizona State bats needed a rest.
"It was just one of those innings," Fox said. "You don't want to have those innings anywhere, any time. You don't want to have it the first game of the year, and you certainly don't want to have it in the last game here. We just couldn't find the strike zone. They were trying as hard as they could."
The pitching struggles were not isolated just to the seventh – Matt Harvey (4.1 innings, 3 ER, 2 hits, 5 bb) set a CWS single-game record with four wild pitches, and the Tar Heels combined for 10 walks and another four hit batters. And you could easily leave the word "relief" out of the description for the bullpen, as five UNC pitchers allowed nine of 10 inherited base runners to cross home plate.
Moran maybe epitomized those struggles more than anyone – the junior lefty inherited 11 base runners during the 2009 postseason, and all 11 scored.
The Game of Chance
UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes told Inside Carolina on Wednesday that his pitchers were prepared to pitch on four days of rest, meaning that Game 1 starter Alex White would probably not be available until a possible game on Friday against Texas.
The junior flamethrower was not one of the seven Tar Heel pitchers to take the mound on Thursday, and Fox was asked about that decision in the postgame press conference.
"The only way I would have used Alex White tonight would have been in the ninth inning, maybe to save the game," Fox said. "This was his normal bullpen day, generally where he throws about 25-30 pitches, pretty much at a 100 percent. But once we got down by two runs -- the boy's got too big of a future ahead of him. That wouldn't have been a smart thing to do."
That approach provides a stark contrast to Arizona State head coach Pat Murphy, who sent his Game 1 starter, Josh Spence, to the mound on just three days of rest. The move worked as the left-handed Aussie gave up just seven hits and three runs in 7.0 innings in a winning effort.
"What can you say [about] the job Josh did. You go through life and find very few kids that make you feel as excited as he does," Murphy said. "To see him compete the way he did on three days rest was really special to see."
Spence – who indicated that he routinely pitched on four days of rest early in the season –struck out eight batters en route to throwing 126 pitches, giving him a total of 248 pitches in the CWS.
Murphy went all in for the victory, while Fox elected to protect his ace's arm. Regardless of Thursday's outcome, both moves were gutsy decisions.