Missed opportunities, blown leads haunt USC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — South Carolina had enough trouble recording 27 outs against a potent North Carolina lineup. Giving the Tar Heels more opportunities to keep swinging hot bats cemented a trip the Gamecocks had no desire to repeat — back to Columbia and a long offseason, instead of the sunny landscape of the College World Series.

USC fell 9-4 to UNC Sunday, eight hours or so after it forced a winner-take-all Super Regional Game 3 with an 8-6 suspended victory. The loss followed the same script of the previous two games with the Tar Heels — USC built an early lead; errors imploded the defense, allowing UNC to creep closer; and one bad pitch put the Heels ahead to stay.

The Gamecocks (46-20) had given their sizable crowd hope they could come off the mat with the day's first win, wrapped in a tidy 34 minutes after USC stifled a UNC rally and extended the season for at least one more game. But with a 4-1 lead in the sixth inning of the nightcap, a tiny mistake turned into a few too many bigger ones, sending the Tar Heels to Omaha, Nebraska for the second straight year and leaving the Gamecocks with a bitter taste in the mouth for the third consecutive season.

"It was a great game for a long time tonight," coach Ray Tanner said. USC had worked out of trouble with wonderful defense, Steven Reinhold leaving his feet for a diving catch and Harley Lail robbing Dustin Ackley of at least a triple with a crashing catch in deep right field. Travis Jones had shed his previous postseason funk (5-for-40 with no homers and two RBIs since the SEC tournament began) by scoring all of the Gamecocks' first three runs, and Justin Smoak had doubled to score Jones for a 4-1 lead. But it didn't hold.

Ahead three runs, starter Mike Cisco humming along, UNC's Chad Flack bounced a one-out grounder to Reese Havens at short. Havens went to his right and tried to backhand the ball, but it skipped off his glove and into left field. The opportunistic Heels (all but one of their 15 runs in the previous two games had come with two outs) seized the advantage one more time.

Kyle Seager smashed a hot shot to deep short, causing Havens to dive. The ball popped into his glove but ricocheted out, again trickling into left, and the Heels (53-13) were in business. Seth Williams worked a one-out walk before nine-hole hitter Garrett Gore ripped a shot back to Cisco. The ball hit Cisco's leg and skipped into the gap between first and second base, allowing two runs to score.

The hit summed up the weekend. USC's pitching staff didn't have much trouble getting through the top half of UNC's order, but the bottom killed it. Gore, Seth Williams and Benji Johnson combined for eight hits, five walks and six RBIs on the weekend.

USC went quietly in the bottom of the sixth and Tim Federowicz stepped in to lead off the Heels' seventh. Will Atwood went 3-1 on him before Federowicz drilled a single to left, which multiplied USC's woes when Flack came up two batters later and smoked a home run for a 6-4 lead. It was the first homer UNC had hit in the postseason. It was enough.

"From that point on, they out-played us, they out-hit us, they out-pitched us," Tanner said.

Seager followed with a bouncer to short, which Havens again missed. The boot was Havens' fifth of the Super Regional, half of his total for the entire season (10) before the weekend. Asked to touch on his normally sturdy shortstop's series yips, Tanner replied, "I'm not going to comment on that." Havens, who said after Game 1 he was responsible for four Tar Heels runs (UNC won 9-6), wasn't available after the game.

The Gamecocks only trailed 6-4 and began to rally in the seventh, loading the bases against closer Andrew Carignan. Summoned in the sixth to preserve a 4-4 tie, Carignan seemed to be losing steam when he walked pinch-hitter Robbie Grinestaff and Travis Jones, loading the bases with two outs.

Memories of Grinestaff's Game 1 grand slam dancing in their heads, the USC faithful leaped to their feet when James Darnell lifted an 0-2 fastball high and deep to right field. But Tim Fedroff drifted under it, his back to the wall, and gloved it for the rally-killing out.

"As soon as I hit it, I thought it had a chance," Darnell said. "I put the best swing I could on it, but it was a good pitch."

The Gamecocks got other opportunities but Carignan wasn't going to put himself in too much trouble again. He got Andrew Crisp to foul out to first with a man on in the eighth, and the Heels added two more runs in the ninth against Wynn Pelzer and Blake Cooper, heaping more misery onto the Gamecocks' chances.

Facing a five-run mountain in the ninth, USC attempted to solve Carignan one batter at a time. Lail, who had already delivered three singles, flew out to right, and Carignan whiffed Havens and pinch-hitter Drew Martin, touching off the obligatory dogpile while the Gamecocks trudged to their dugout.

The players leaned against the dugout railing, still with their caps turned backwards for a rally that never came, watching UNC celebrate. Just three years ago, some of the Gamecocks were celebrating their own trip to Omaha. Three years later, the past two oh-so-close, they were left staring at what might have been, if not for too many errors, too many two-strike, two-out mistakes, too many times they didn't close the deal.

Darnell, Cisco, Trent Kline and Tanner sat at the table, staring holes into the carpet while they answered questions. They spoke of how disappointed they were to end the season with another Super Regional loss (2006 ended with a Game 3 defeat at Georgia), but said they were proud of the way they fought.

"You get left with a bitter feeling in your stomach leaving Georgia, and tonight (is) the same thing all over again," Cisco said. "It makes it that much worse when you're that close, and we just couldn't pull it out tonight."

"We haven't been a great team," Tanner said, "but we compete, we battle... Tonight, we were not good enough."

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