The NCAA selection committee received plenty of criticism this week for gifting Cal (29-24) with the No. 2 seed in this Norman region. Following Friday's showing, that criticism is well justified. The Tar Heels (37-20) delivered Harvey his biggest first-inning lead of the season, essentially making the final 8.5 innings a formality.
Cal freshman lefty Justin Jones started the contest by walking Mike Cavasinni (2-3, RBI) and Levi Michael (0-3, RBI), setting the table for a monster three-run blast by Dillon Hazlett (1-5, 3 RBI). Two fielder's choice RBIs and a RBI single later gave UNC the 6-0 first-inning lead.
The Bears scratched out a run in the bottom of the third, but the Tar Heels added three more in the fourth to build a 9-1 margin.
Jones exited in the first inning after giving up five earned runs and failing to secure an out in 19 pitches. Harvey (8-3), on the other hand, allowed just two earned runs in 6.0 innings in the win. The junior flamethrower moved into ninth place on the UNC all-time strikeout list with nine on Friday (263) and also inched up the career wins list at No. 10 (22).
Ben Bunting (2-5) and Jacob Stallings (2-5) both added a pair of RBIs for North Carolina, while Mark Canha (2-5) also posted two RBI for California.
The Tar Heels are now 45-22 in NCAA play under head coach Mike Fox in their ninth straight postseason appearance.
INSIDE THE GAME
The Benefits of Experience
While North Carolina's four straight College World Series may be irrelevant to this season in some debates, it's impossible to dismiss the power of experience that was evident on Friday evening.
California's entire starting lineup entered this contest with a total combined four NCAA postseason appearances on its resume. UNC senior shortstop Ryan Graepel owns 18 NCAA postseason starts just in the past two years. But even if you didn't know those statistics prior to the first inning's conclusion, chances are that you could have made a pretty good guess.
"That's not the way we like to start," California head coach David Esquer told reporters during his postgame press conference. "I don't think we showed how we have really played in the past or who we really are. Justin Jones – I don't know whether it was nerves or just getting used to the mound, but he hasn't been that shaky the whole year."
The Bears, led by Jones, looked frazzled and out of sorts. With a potential double play on the line, not to mention a momentum swing in ending the inning down only 3-0 after a bases-loaded-and-no-outs scenario, third baseman Mitch Delfino hesitated on a short chopper and ultimately slipped to the ground, killing the opportunity. UNC pounced, scoring three more runs in short order.
And as if to make a statement in the bottom half of the inning, Harvey sandwiched two strikeouts around a forced groundout to second to dismiss any thoughts of immediate reaction.
When asked if the wealth of experience played a role in the first inning, Graepel replied: "It definitely may have. It helped out that they weren't throwing strikes to our first two batters… I guess our experience may have helped to make sure that we just went out there and played our game and not get too focused on any of things the other teams are doing."
Bats Perk Up
Baseball writers have questioned North Carolina's ability to swing the bat all weeklong, but if history tells us anything, it's that the Tar Heels bring the wood in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Since this yearly College World Series vacation in Omaha began in '06, UNC has talled 222 runs in 22 Regional and Super Regional appearances – good for a 10.1 run-per-game average. In the first two rounds of NCAA play, UNC has totaled eight runs or more in 16 of those 22 games.
North Carolina's six-run first inning on Friday was the second-most to start a game all season, trailing only the eight-spot the Heels posted against Princeton on Mar. 16.
"Obviously the first inning was big for us," Fox said. "We've not generally been a team that's had big innings, so it was nice to start the first inning that way. Dillon's swing of the bat certainly got us off to a good start."
The Tar Heels have won 15 of their last 19 games while averaging 8.1 runs per game.
Winner's Bracket Duel
Oral Roberts did its best to deliver an early Christmas present to the Tar Heels and Bears on Friday afternoon, overcoming a 5-1 deficit to take a 6-5 lead into the bottom half of the eighth inning over No. 1 seed Oklahoma. But the Sooners proved their mental toughness once again, producing a come-from-behind victory in the ninth inning or later for the fourth time in five games, winning 7-6 in 10 innings.
Seven of the Sooners' 25 come-from-behind victories this season occurred when trailing after seven innings, while UNC counters with seven losses after holding a lead in the seventh inning or later.
Zach Neal (8-3, 4.52 ERA), Oklahoma's typical Friday night pitcher, is expected to take the mound against UNC on Saturday.
But despite Oklahoma serving as host, as well as holding down the No. 1 seed, the Tar Heels are undaunted by the task that lay before them.
"We're coming into this regional no different than any other," Graepel said. "We expect to win every game that we go out and play. We're playing with a lot of confidence right now. If our mindset ever changes, then that's when we're going to get ourselves in trouble."
North Carolina and Oklahoma will square off at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday.