UNC’s postseason has been marked by incredible resilience. The Tar Heels survived a ninth-inning grand slam and then a 3-run homerun in the 12th to outlast Florida Atlantic in the Chapel Hill Regional final.
In the Super Regionals, Kent Emanuel, Hobbs Johnson and Benton Moss combined for 6 1/3 innings in their three starts and yet UNC somehow persevered against South Carolina. And after finding themselves in the College World Series losers’ bracket after a Sunday loss to N.C. State, the Tar Heels leaned on dominant pitching by Trent Thornton and Hobbs Johnson to eliminate two of the other four teams in their bracket.
On Friday, North Carolina entered its final inning of season trailing 4-0 with David Berg, who is currently tied with a NCAA single-season record 23 saves, on the mound to close out UCLA’s 39th straight win while leading after seven.
A rally was improbable, but the Tar Heels had dealt with poor odds before.
“At that point it was do or die,” UNC senior first baseman Cody Stubbs told reporters following the game. “We either did it or didn't. We've been doing it all year, especially late in the season. Especially the seniors, with me and Chaz [Frank], we just didn't want it to end there… We weren't going to go down without a fight. That just wasn't going to happen.”
Stubbs fell behind in the count before singling into right field. Skye Bolt hit a 2-2 pitch up the middle that woke up the UNC fans in the TD Ameritrade Park stands. Once Michael Russell walked on five pitches to load the bases with no out to bring the tying run to the plate, the sportswriters in the press box stopped hammering on their keyboards in hopes of making deadline to watch what was transpiring on the field.
UCLA caught a break on a neighborhood call as Russell was called out at second on a fielder’s choice for the first out. Parks Jordan struck out on three pitches, relieving some of the tension, but Frank battled back from a 1-2 count to draw a walk and remind the Bruins his team wasn’t going anywhere.
Those hopes faded for the last time when Landon Lassiter, UNC’s best bat in the postseason, stepped to the plate and crunched a 1-2 pitch directly at UCLA centerfielder Brian Carroll.
“What we did in the ninth inning is just indicative of our kids and how we played all year,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said. “Just fighting until the very end.”
North Carolina entered Friday night’s matchup with UCLA as a solid favorite with Kent Emanuel on the mound. Despite recent struggles, the ACC Pitcher of the Year was effective against a Bruins squad batting south of .200 in Omaha. The junior southpaw allowed two runs (one unearned) on five hits through 6.0 innings.
The Tar Heel bats, however, were unable to provide any run support for eight innings. At times, UNC was impatient at the plate – Colin Moran saw eight pitches in four at-bats, for example – while UCLA’s bat were exact opposite, resulting in a 44-pitch differential heading into the final frame.
Lefthander Grant Watson (6.0 IP, 3 SO, BB) spread out four hits over seven innings against arguably the nation’s best hitting team.
“As far as like the strikes go, I was trying to go pitch to pitch, concentrating on hitting location since I know North Carolina has a bunch of great hitters,” Watson said. “I knew I wasn't going to throw it by them at all. So I worried about locating and making speeds.”
Stubbs and Lassiter combined for six of UNC’s seven hits. The Tar Heels were held to one run or less just five times this season, although three of those outings occurred in their final six games.
Plenty of credit goes to the UCLA pitching staff, which shut down a loaded LSU batting lineup on Sunday before handing N.C. State its first NCAA Tournament loss on Tuesday. The Tigers and Wolfpack combined for two runs on 10 hits in those losses.
“The teams that are here can all pitch really well,” Fox said when asked about his team’s offensive struggles. “That's why they're here. So you're seeing the best arms and the best pitching staffs, I think, in college baseball when you get on this stage. So that's the biggest factor - the teams can really, really pitch out here.”
North Carolina won a school record 59 games in 2013 and increased its NCAA Tournament win total to 49 since 2006, the most by any team in the country.