CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — SOUTH CAROLINA picked the worst possible time to play its sloppiest baseball of the season.
Nine errors in the three games of the Chapel Hill Super Regional loss to North Carolina. Numerous missed sacrifice bunt attempts. A crucial throw that eluded the cutoff man. An inability to throw a strike when it was most needed.
A team like USC can get away with such play against mid-week, non-conference opponents and even against some SEC teams during the regular season. Not against perhaps the nation’s best team on its home field.
Chad Holbrook recognized that.
“In postseason play and you’re playing a great team, every little mistake is magnified,” Holbrook said after USC’s 5-4 loss to UNC in the deciding game of the best-of-three series. “We made our fair share (of errors) this weekend and it’s disappointing. We lost two games and both games were there for us to win.”
Truth be known, USC’s defense let it down in all three games of the series.
In the opener, a dropped fly ball by left fielder Graham Saiko and a throw from right fielder Connor Bright to no one in particular gift-wrapped a pair of runs in UNC’s 6-5 victory.
Fortunately for USC, sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery pitched around poor defensive play in the middle game. USC made three errors in that one, including two in one inning in which Montgomery essentially had to get five outs. He did, and USC won 8-0.
Then came the multitude of blunders in Tuesday’s game.
The calamity began from the get-go. A chance for a big inning went by the boards when Joey Pankake’s sacrifice bunt attempt with runners on first and second and no outs resulted in a force out at third base. A fly out and a strikeout followed to short-circuit the scoring threat.
“If you lose by one run and you don’t get a bunt down,” Holbrook said, “it comes back to get you.”
The UNC sixth inning, though, personified the entire series for USC. The Tar Heels scored three times to take a one-run lead that held to the end. Left-handed reliever Adam Westmoreland appeared to be sailing along when it all crumbled.
Landon Lassiter led off with a single, and Colin Moran followed with what looked like a double to the right field corner. But the ball bounded away from Bright, Lassister raced home, and Moran ended up on third base.
Then Westmoreland hit Skye Bolt with a pitch to put runners on first and third base. Cody Stubbs followed with a harmless fly ball to shallow center field, and Tanner English made a perfect throw to the cutoff man, first baseman Kyle Martin, as Moran held at third base.
Bolt tagged up at first base and took off, OK bolted, toward second base. Martin wheeled and threw a one-hopper that bounded into center field as Moran waltzed home with the tying run, and Bolt ended on third base.
With two outs, Brian Holberton was walked intentionally, and Westmoreland walked Mike Zolk to load the bases. USC called relief ace Tyler Webb from the bullpen and his 3-2 fastball to the ninth hitter in the UNC order, Parks Jordan, was inside.
The winning run was forced home on a bases-loaded walk.
“It’s disappointing, especially when the games are so important,” Holbrook said. “At the same time, we’ve played good defense all year long. We probably wouldn’t be sitting up here with a chance to go to Omaha if we hadn’t played good defense. It just came back and got us this weekend.”
Holbrook also was quick to point out that UNC constantly put pressure on the USC defense. The tag up from first base by Bolt was one example. That starter Jack Wynkoop, Westmoreland and Webb did not strike out a batter is proof that UNC put the ball in play and forced the action.
It is a big reason UNC is the top-seeded team in the NCAA tournament and has a school-record 57 wins against 10 losses. The Tar Heels did not play great baseball in the series, either, but they played well enough to win two of the games.
Not one of USC’s players intended to play poorly. Their play throughout the regular season and through the regional tournament got USC into a one-game playoff to determine who would go to Omaha for the College World Series.
These are amateur players. They are going to make mistakes, make errors, make poor plays. You just hope those plays are not made in the most crucial games of the most crucial series, as they were for USC in this Super Regional.