CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — CHAD HOLBROOK sounded like the Oklahoma coach a year ago following a Super Regional loss to South Carolina. Or, Holbrook could as easily have been the Arkansas coach after falling to USC in the College World Series. Or, was it the Virginia coach in the 2011 College World Series, or the Connecticut coach in the 2011 Super Regional?
Holbrook’s USC team got the tables turned on it Saturday at Boshamer Stadium. Over the past three seasons, opposing coaches have said time and again that to beat a great team like USC, their teams needed to play mistake-free baseball.
Now North Carolina is that great team, one that carries the top seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I hate to beat a dead horse, but when you don’t execute and you don’t capitalize on the opportunities that you have in this setting against a team like that, you’re not going to win,” Holbrook said following USC’s 6-5 loss to North Carolina in the opening game of the Chapel Hill Super Regional.
UNC executed like a team that carries an eye-opening 56-9 record into Sunday’s Game 2. USC did not.
“When they’ve got a good team, mistakes are magnified, offensively and defensively if you don’t capitalize on opportunities,” Holbrook said. “Both offensively and defensively, we didn’t capitalize.”
Let’s start with the offense, which banged the ball around the park to the tune of five runs on 15 hits. Sounds good, right? Well, not exactly. The numbers that loomed larger on the statistic sheet were 12 runners left on base and a mere three hits on 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
USC had numerous chances to put this game away. Take a deep breath before you read this next sentence: USC left runners on first and second in the first inning, second and third in the third inning, first and second in the fourth inning, first and third in the sixth inning, on third base in the seventh inning and left the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
USC got the leadoff hitter on base in seven of nine innings, yet scored four runs in those frames. Not one of USC’s five runs came via a two-out hit.
Holbrook said USC’s offense also failed on a couple of sacrifice bunt attempts, missed a chance to hit behind a runner on one occasion and did not execute what he called “situational hitting.”
Now to the defense.
“Our outfielders made two mistakes that loom big right now,” Holbrook said.
Left fielder Graham Saiko appeared to be in position to catch what would have been the third out of UNC’s first inning. But the fading line drive off the bat of Cody Stubbs clanked off Saiko’s glove as Colin Moran scooted in from second base.
In the third inning, right fielder Connor Bright fielded a double down the line by UNC’s Stubbs and inexplicably threw the ball to the grassy infield void of USC players. Moran, again, was happy to chug around third base and score the gift run.
Even a USC error in the eighth inning that seemed harmless came back to bite the Gamecocks. With two outs, UNC’s Michael Russell hit a slow roller to USC second baseman Max Schrock, who booted the ball.
When Russell alertly took two bases on the play, USC opted to intentionally walk Holberton before Mike Zolk made the final out. By extending the inning by two batters, USC allowed UNC to flip its batting order to the top of the lineup for the ninth inning.
“That’s the thing about their lineup, they can recycle and they keep coming at you,” Holbrook said.
Instead of facing the bottom third of the UNC lineup in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, USC left-hander Tyler Webb was forced to pitch to the ninth-place hitter, then the top of the order.
The game-winning hit came from UNC cleanup hitter Skye Bolt.
That left USC players either sprawled on the field or standing in disbelief as UNC celebrated. It is not a position the Gamecocks have found themselves in during the past three postseasons.
“They believe they can win,” Holbrook said of UNC. “They’re 56-9 and have come from behind a lot and have won some really, really big games this year. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap to the opponent and also look yourself in the mirror.”
If that refrain does not sound familiar, it should. That’s precisely the manner in which opposing coaches have spoken about USC in recent years.