Oklahoma (46-15) jumped out to a 4-0 lead through five innings and appeared comfortable in riding starting pitcher Zach Neal to victory. But Ryan Graepel singled with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth inning to awaken the Tar Heels (37-21) and pull his club to within 4-2.
The Sooners quickly answered with a Garrett Buechele blast over the left field wall to increase the margin to 5-2 in the top of the seventh. After UNC scratched out a run on a Ben Bunting single in the eighth, Oklahoma scored once again in the top of ninth, thanks to a throwing error to home plate by UNC second baseman Dillon Hazlett.
Trailing 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Levi Michael's bloop double into left field scored Tommy Coyle and set the table for Brian Goodwin's first dose of postseason heroics. With runners on second and third with two outs, the freshman delivered his eighth triple of the season – tying a school record dating back to 1949 – to knot the score at 6-all. Graepel was unable to score Goodwin from third, striking out to end regulation.
Ricky Eisenberg notched a one-out double in the top of the 10th and he ultimately proved to be the winning run after Ross's dead away center double that bounced over the wall.
Greg Holt (3-4) picked up the loss for North Carolina after starter Patrick Johnson and Colin Bates combined to allow five earned runs and 10 hits in 7 2/3 innings of work. Closer Ryan Duke earned the victory for the Sooners.
For the second game in a row, Oklahoma won 7-6 in 10 innings. The Sooners needed a Chris Ellison RBI single to defeat Oral Roberts on Friday night. Oklahoma is now an impressive 18-3-1 in extra inning games under head coach Sunny Golloway.
North Carolina will start freshman righty Chris Munnelly (2-2, 5.40 ERA) against Oral Roberts at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday in an elimination game. The Tar Heels must defeat the Golden Eagles and then upset the Sooners twice in two days to advance to next weekend's Super Regional round.
INSIDE THE GAME
Trouble at the Plate
Entering Saturday's pivotal winner's bracket contest, North Carolina had won 15 of their last 19 games behind solid pitching and a resurgent offense that was averaging 8.1 runs per game.
It appeared as though the Tar Heels would be able to capitalize early against Oklahoma starting pitcher Zach Neal, putting a runner on third base on each of the first two innings. But Neal, who took a line drive to his left ankle in a May 21st win over Kansas, finally returned to good health at just the right time for the Sooners. The junior righty used an effective breaking ball to carry a one-hitter into the sixth inning before UNC was finally able to get the bat on the ball, and even then it was minimal.
Neal allowed just three earned runs on eight hits in 8.0 innings of work, his longest outing since an Apr. 17 complete game against Texas Tech. He also posted his second-highest strikeout total of the season, etching 10 on the evening.
"I thought he was really effective all game," UNC freshman Brian Goodwin told reporters during the postgame press conference. "He had three pretty good pitches. I felt like his change-up was his best and he threw that a lot. He left it down and got us to chase."
Neal indicated that the key to success was simply getting ahead in the count.
"I was making good pitches when I was ahead in the count, pitches that they couldn't hit," Neal said. "That's all it was. Getting ahead and then putting them away when I was ahead. That's something that I haven't done the past couple of weeks. I tend to get ahead of hitters, but sometimes I don't make good 0-2 pitches or good 1-2 pitches and tonight I did."
A Refusal to Lose
North Carolina looked dead in the water entering the ninth inning. Not only was the Heels' eight-spot hitter up in Tommy Coyle, but Oklahoma closer Ryan Duke (11 saves, 2.87 ERA) was on the mound with a 6-3 lead. Fans in the crowd were undoubtedly talking about which team Oklahoma would face on Sunday night.
North Carolina has been to four straight College World Series for a reason. Sure, some of the high-profile players are now on professional rosters scattered across the country, but the mindset hasn't changed. The Tar Heels had no plans on going quietly into the night, but they just needed an opening, a little crack to get a foothold.
Duke provided that opening in the form of an inning-opening walk to Coyle.
"We were just trying to get guys on in that situation, try to get the tying run to the plate," senior shortstop Ryan Graepel said. "Luckily, we were able to do that."
A wild pitch moved Coyle to second and Mike Cavasinni was hit by a pitch to give Levi Michael an opportunity with runners on first and second with only one out. The sophomore delivered with a bloop double to left field to score Coyle and move Cavi to third.
All of a sudden, the momentum had switched. The boisterous Sooner crowd had settled down, replacing celebration with anxiety.
After a Dillon Hazlett strikeout, Goodwin strolled to the plate with two outs and stripes his triple to right field, tying the game and giving his program a chance to steal victory in the bottom of the ninth inning.
"It came at a really good time," Goodwin said about his triple. "I feel like I wanted to be at the plate. It was a situation where I felt like I wanted to be in the box. It was a good pitch and I just got a good swing under it, which was just great. I felt really confident afterwards."
Confidence is the key. The Tar Heels ended up losing, of course, but while this year's squad may be lacking the necessary talent to make a legitimate run at the national title, there's no doubt that their mindset is right where it needs to be.
Questionable 10th Inning Call
The Tar Heels are now 45-23 in NCAA postseason under Mike Fox's direction, so if you spend too much of your time criticizing the 12th-year UNC manager, chances are that you will look like a fool more often than not. But that doesn't mean Fox doesn't make mistakes. To err is human.
With Ben Bunting standing on first base with no outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, Fox decided against pinch hitting Seth Baldwin for Jesse Wierzbicki to move the base runner into scoring position. The JUCO first baseman, not known for his bunting skills, had the green light to swing before being called on to bunt.
The worst-case scenario came to fruition as Wierzbicki popped his bunt attempt up into the air, allowing Cameron Seitzer to notch Oklahoma's first out of the inning with Bunting still standing on first.
"I told him I'd give him one swing to see if he could hunt a fastball middle-in and try to do something with it, but of course, we didn't get that pitch," Fox said of his decision. "We were the home team and I was just thinking, ‘Let's get the tying run to second base.' … I probably asked him to do something that is not one of his strong suits and obviously the results didn't turn out.
"If I had it to do all over again, I probably wouldn't have had him bunt, to be honest with you. It's just one of those things – we just didn't get it down."