On June 2, 2012, Danny Bethea, St. John’s 8-hole hitter, stepped to the plate at Boshamer Stadium and lined a walk-off three-run homer over the left field wall. Exactly one year to the day, Santiago, who also occupies the 8-hole, directed his game-winner in the seventh a little closer toward the scoreboard in left field.
The result, of course, was the same. For the second year in a row, UNC will play a regional elimination game at Boshamer Stadium after dominating the NCAA Tournament’s opening round with a 16-0 home record dating back to 2006.
On Monday, All-American Colin Moran foreshadowed Sunday’s events while discussing the missed opportunities that led to the first St. John’s loss last season.
“Just do everything not to be in that position again,” Moran said. “Try to make it where you’re not in a close game late in the game where they can’t take one swing of the bat and change the whole game.”
North Carolina had plenty of chances to end Florida Atlantic’s season early. The Tar Heels opened the game with a trio of singles, building a 1-0 lead and setting the table for the middle of the batting order with runners on the corners and no outs.
Skye Bolt struck out, while Cody Stubbs and Michael Russell fouled out to end the scoring threat. That first inning was replicated numerous times, as UNC found plenty of success at the plate (12 hits, 4 walks, 4 HBP) but failed to deliver clutch hits. The Tar Heels left 15 men on base, batting .143 with runners in scoring position.
“It is frustrating,” centerfielder Chaz Frank said. “You feel it in the dugout a little bit, but it’s a good thing that we are putting guys out there. It’s not [N.C. State pitcher Carlos] Rodon or somebody up there that’s striking us out every time and we’re not getting anybody on. But it’s tough. You’ve just got to stay with it, and unfortunately, it didn’t come for us tonight.”
Despite the LOBs piling up, UNC remained in control through six innings on the left arm of Hobbs Johnson. The junior took a no-hitter into the seventh, but began to lose control in the sixth, which only amplified the Tar Heels’ miscues in the top half of the inning.
After a pair of singles and a walk loaded the bases for Moran with no outs, the Boshamer crowd sensed an opportunity to clinch a Super Regional appearance for the second time in three years. Moran, however, took a swing at a borderline 1-0 pitch and bounced the ball back to the pitcher for an easy 1-2-3 double play. Bolt flied out five pitches later to end the inning.
Moran is hitting .236 with two RBI in seven postseason games, while Bolt is batting .242 with three RBI over the same stretch.
“They made some big pitches to get out of the innings,” Frank said. “Yeah, it was a lack of focus for our team because that’s not like us. We have two of the top RBI guys in the nation, so it’s very different, very unlike us to leave guys out there that much.”
Johnson worked his way out of a bases loaded jam in the bottom of the sixth, but walked the first batter in the seventh before being pulled for Trevor Kelley. The sophomore righty walked Corey Keller on six pitches and then struck out Levi Meyer to bring Santiago to the plate.
Santiago told reporters he was expecting a slider on the 1-1 pitch, but instead uncorked on a throw over the plate to break up UNC’s no-hitter.
The Tar Heels had eight more at-bats than the Owls, while quadrupling their number of hits (12-3). None of those stats mattered on Sunday.
“I don’t focus on the hits column,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said. “They got the big hit that gave them the three-run homer. It’s a little unusual to look at that and see that many hits, but theirs was a big one. I’m glad they got two more [hits]; it would have been really frustrating to look at that box score and see only one hit in the game.”
North Carolina and Florida Atlantic will take the field once more on Monday at 6 p.m. to determine who will advance to next weekend’s Super Regional round - and likely opponent South Carolina (which is looking to close out Liberty on Monday).