Vanderbilt (54-11) struck first as Anthony Gomez delivered a sacrifice fly after a Tony Kemp triple to open the bottom of the first. Connor Harrell hit his second home run – this one a three-run shot – over the left field wall in as many games against UNC (51-16) in Omaha in the second inning. Curt Casali added a solo home run to left field in the third.
Senior Ben Bunting knocked in North Carolina’s lone run in the fifth inning.
Taylor Hill (6-1) was dominant on the mound for Vanderbilt, giving up just one earned run on four hits in 7.0 innings pitched. Greg Holt (7-2, 5 ER, 4 hits, 2 SO, BB, HBP) was saddled with the loss.
INSIDE THE GAME
Pitching Decision Fails to Pay Off
While starting pitchers Patrick Johnson and Kent Emanuel improved as the season progressed, question marks arose in other areas of bullpen. Sunday starter Chris Munnelly gave up 12 earned runs in his final four starts of the season (20.1 IP) and
Tar Heel relievers allowed five earned runs and six hits in 4.1 innings during the Super Regional against Stanford.
Holt earned his first start of the season in the ACC Tournament opener against Miami and was effective early, but in three postseason appearances prior to Wednesday’s game, the Clemmons, N.C. product had given up seven earned runs on nine hits in 7.0 innings.
UNC head coach Mike Fox was forced to roll the dice in selecting a starter against Vanderbilt, knowing that Patrick Johnson was available on three days rest but also knowing that the Tar Heels had to win three in a row to reach the championship series. So Fox went with Holt over Munnelly in a move that promised glorious accolades if successful and pointed criticism if not.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, the latter proved true. The Commodores hit Holt hard early, knocking him out of the game with two outs in the third inning.
Fox dismissed the notion in his postgame press conference that Holt’s limited starting experience played a role in his performance.
“He's been a long reliever for us, so I don't know that had anything to do with it in terms of starting the game,” Fox said. “He just didn't make some good pitches and left the ball up over the middle of the plate against some good hitters, and they took advantage of it.”
In four postseason appearances, Holt allowed 12 earned runs in 9.2 innings pitched.
Runs Remain Rare
Since 2006, North Carolina has scored 281 runs in 30 Regional and Super Regional appearances – good for a 9.4 run-per-game average. In 24 College World Series showings during the same time frame, the Tar Heels have tallied 111 runs – good for a 4.6 runs-per-game average.
But the trouble in Omaha is not that UNC’s bats have gone quiet; it’s that the bats have often failed to capitalize when given the opportunity.
After leaving a season-high 16 men on base in Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, the Tar Heels picked up where they left off on Wednesday, stranding nine runners and batting .125 (1-for-8) with runners in scoring position.
North Carolina had an immediate opportunity to answer the Commodores’ first inning run as Jacob Stallings doubled to left center and Tommy Coyle walked to open the second. But Jesse Wierzbicki and Levi Michael both struck out and Brian Holberton grounded out to second base to end the threat.
In the fourth, Stallings doubled with one out, but Coyle fouled out and Wierzbicki popped out to allow Hill to escape unscathed. And with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, Bunting grounded out to first base to plate one run and Stallings struck out swinging two batters later with the bases loaded once again.
“I got a first pitch slider, and it was the best pitch of the at-bat to hit, and I just missed it,” Stallings said. “You know, Taylor [Hill] really kind of bumped up during that at-bat. His stuff was a lot better just that whole at-bat than it had been in my previous times.”
Fox admitted the fourth inning result was deflating.
“You're down four and you have the bases loaded and you're thinking to yourself, ‘One swing of the bat, ball in the gap, and we're right back in the game and we get the momentum in our dugout,’” Fox said. “They were in that situation several times while we were out here, and it just didn't happen for us…
“We left a lot of people on base out here for three games, but a lot of that has to do with the other team, and we were facing some pretty good arms as well. So it is what it is. It didn't happen for us, and after that we didn't muster up a whole lot. ”
Wierzbicki and Michael joined with freshman Colin Moran to lead UNC’s offense throughout the season, but the two upperclassmen combined for two hits in 24 at-bats with eight strikeouts in Omaha.
In three College World Series games, UNC has left 34 men on base and batted .157 (6-for-38) with runners in scoring position.
An Unexpected Season
While some media members and fans may criticize North Carolina for not winning the College World Series for the fifth time in six years, the fact that type of response is even fathomable speaks to the success Fox has had in building his program.
Actually, that’s not correct. The building phase has long since been complete. UNC now sits atop the college baseball landscape as a perennial power.
North Carolina's 51 wins on the season are tied for fourth in school history (‘90). The Heels’ .979 fielding percentage leads the country and their 358 walks are 34 clear of the second-best single-season mark in program history.
Most impressive of all is UNC’s 39-14 record in NCAA Tournament play since ’06.
“[It’s] such a great credit to our players and how committed they were just to make it this far,” Fox said. “It's obviously very difficult to win the national championship. We gave it all we had, but I'm proud that we were able to end our season in Omaha in the College World Series, and these guys got to experience it. I had a great group. They were fun to be around, and they taught me a great deal, especially our seniors. They taught me a lot. I just told them in the locker room, and we had fun together.”