North Carolina’s bullpen struggles in super regional loss to Auburn

There was a hush in the hallways of North Carolina’s locker room – a much quieter scene than last weekend when the Tar Heels celebrated their 14th regional regional title in program history.

No screams and no loud music. The only thing that cracked the silence were the doors shutting as players and coaches walked through them.

The Tar Heels’ seven-game winning streak came to an abrupt end here at Boshamer Stadium on Saturday in the first game of their best-of-three super regional series against Auburn.

After leading 5-2 through seven innings, the Tigers scored nine runs in the final two innings to win 11-7.

“That is obviously a tough one to swallow out there for us,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “But my hat is off to Auburn for taking advantage and coming back to win. They’re a good club.”

North Carolina coach Mike Fox talks with starting pitcher Tyler Baum before removing him from the mound after just over six innings against Auburn during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

UNC junior pitcher Tyler Baum had a strong outing. He pitched 6 1/3 innings and gave up only two runs. But the Tar Heels’ bullpen, which had been good all postseason, struggled..

Freshman designated hitter Aaron Sabato finished the game 3-for-5 with two runs batted in and two doubles. The Tar Heels led 3-0 in the first inning.

But that was not enough. Auburn never gave up.

The Tar Heels’ seven-game winning streak started in the first game of the ACC Baseball Championship. They won both the ACC and regional titles without dropping a game.

But the Tigers (37-25), who also swept their regional at Georgia Tech, got the best of the Tar Heels (45-18) on Saturday.

UNC is now one loss away from being eliminated from the NCAA tournament. The two teams play again on Sunday.

The Tar Heels are trying to make it back to Omaha for the second consecutive year, and their 12th College World Series in program history.

But they’ll have to win Sunday and Monday’s games to get there.

North Carolina’s Aaron Sabato (19) connects for a single in the seventh inning against Auburn during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“It’s a series, so it’s pretty much like every other series,” Sabato said. “You come, you lose the first one, you’ve got to win the next two... For us, we’re just thinking about coming back and trying to win two games and go to Omaha.”

Baum, who Fox said had one of his best performances of his career, made his only mistake in the fifth inning. He gave up a two-run home run to Auburn’s Steven Williams over the right field wall, which cut UNC’s lead 3-2.

But he finished the game with seven strikeouts, allowed only four hits and no walks.

Fox went to his bullpen in the seventh inning. Over the last seven games UNC’s bullpen, led by Joey Lancellotti, Hansen Butler and Austin Love, had a 1.93 ERA, a 6-0 record and two saves in 37 1/3 innings pitched.

But Saturday, they just didn’t have it.

Love, Butler and Lancellotti gave up eight earned runs against Auburn, which was more than they had given up in the seven games prior.

In the top of the eighth inning, Auburn added five runs on a pair of RBI-doubles and a wild pitch. Auburn first baseman Rankin Woley’s three-run double gave Auburn its first lead of the game 7-5.

Auburn’s Edouard Julien (10) slides into home on North Carolina catcher Brandon Martorano (4) in the eight inning to score and give Auburn a 7-5 lead on a double by Rankin Woley during the NCAA Super Regional on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

The Tigers added four more runs in the top of the ninth to extend their lead 11-5.

The Tar Heels tried to answer. They scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth, and loaded the bases with the game-tying run at the plate.

But second baseman Ashton McGee flied out to center field to end the game.

UNC and Auburn will play at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. UNC pitcher Austin Bergner (6-1, 5.21 ERA, 72 SO, 27 BB) will likely get the start.

The Tar Heels will need another a strong pitching performance from Bergner, who had one of his best performances of the season last weekend in the regional finals against Tennessee. He pitched seven innings, struck out eight batters and gave up only two earned runs for the win.

“This group is pretty good at letting things go,” Fox said. “We talk all the time about how you’re going to carry yourself when you leave here, and what are you going to say, what’s going to come out of your mouth. We win as a team, we lose as a team. That’s been our bond, so I won’t have to say a lot to them.

“Our guys will be ready tomorrow.”

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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