South Carolina’s run of three straight College World Series appearances came to an end Tuesday afternoon on the home field of the nation’s top-seeded team.
In a game marred by sloppy play on both sides, North Carolina hung on to defeat the Gamecocks 5-4 at Boshamer Stadium. The Tar Heels (57-10), who have tied a school record for wins, now advance to Omaha for the sixth time in eight seasons, while USC (43-20) goes home before it get can there for the first time since the 2009 season.
“There’s not too much different between the two teams, but ultimately we didn’t do enough to win the two games that they won,” USC first-year head coach Chad Holbrook said. “It’ll haunt me for a long time, but I’m also awfully proud of our players. It’s a difficult day for us today, but we’ll look back on it as a darn good year.”
UNC freshman right-hander Trent Thornton (11-1) got his second win of the Super Regional with a gritty relief effort, while USC senior left-hander Adam Westmoreland (7-4) took the tough-luck loss. UNC ace Kent Emanuel, the ACC pitcher of the year, got the final two outs in the ninth with a runner on base for his first save of the season.
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Thornton was thrilled his teammates found a way to pull out a second one-run win.
“It was the best feeling I’ve ever had just knowing that we’re going to Omaha,” said Thornton, who allowed one earned run over 4 2/3 innings. “We’ve been through a lot this year. This is probably the most fun I’ve had playing with any team.”
The series played out exactly the same as the 2007 Super Regional between the two teams here. UNC won the first and third games, while USC won the middle one. The Tar Heels won a pair of one-run games this time, while the Gamecocks romped to their 8-0 win.
“They battled all weekend, and we battled, too,” said USC sophomore center fielder Tanner English, who had an RBI single in the second inning and an RBI double in the sixth inning. “I figured coming into today that it was going to be a knife fight and it was just going to be back and forth all day. Sure enough it was. The ball fell on their side of the court.”
The game turned in the bottom half of the sixth inning with the Gamecocks leading 4-2. But Westmoreland gave up a leadoff single to Landon Lassiter on a liner that tipped off shortstop Joey Pankake’s glove. Colin Moran followed by ripping a ball just down the right-field line that caromed around for a run-scoring triple.
After Westmoreland hit Skye Bolt with a pitch, Cory Stubbs lifted a fly ball to center field that wasn’t deep enough to score Moran, but when the throw headed home, Bolt took off for second. USC first baseman Kyle Martin cut the throw off, but he threw wildly into center trying to nail Bolt, and Moran trotted home to tie it at 4-4.
Westmoreland said that he didn’t get frustrated at the bad breaks.
“It’s not tough to keep your composure because as pitchers, we try to have a one-pitch mentality,” Westmoreland said. “If something happens, then it happens. You just have to forget about it and move on. I made a mistake to Moran and he hit it so there’s nothing you really can do about it except make a better pitch the next time.”
But after Westmoreland walked two batters to load the bases, closer Tyler Webb entered and got Parks Jordan down in a 0-2 count. He lost him, however, on a 3-2 inside fastball, and Bolt scored what would prove to be the winning run.
“That last pitch was pretty close, but it was probably a ball,” Webb said. “I’m disappointed I walked the run in, but that’s baseball.”Holbrook knew his team was in a good position with a two-run lead and his top relievers in the game. He was disappointed that things didn’t go their way.
“I felt like the game was there for us to win. We didn’t make some plays we normally make, and we didn’t do some things we normally do,” he said. “They pushed across three runs in the sixth when we kind of opened the gates for them a little bit. Baseball’s a game of inches, that’s just how it is.”
The Gamecocks were facing a team that hasn’t lost two consecutive games all season. And they understood the Tar Heels, who didn’t strike out all day against the three USC pitchers, would keep coming at them.
“North Carolina’s a great team. You knew they weren’t going to go away quietly,” Webb said. “We knew we still had our work cut out for us and we had to play good baseball the last four or five innings.”
USC took a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning without a hit thanks to some poor UNC defense. The two runs scored on a dropped fly ball by center fielder Chaz Frank that was hit by Joey Pankake with two outs. The inning already had been extended when English reached safely on a sacrifice bunt due to Stubbs dropping the throw at first. An inning later, USC upped that lead to 4-2 on leadoff singles by Grayson Greiner and Max Schrock and the big double by English.
Those innings erased UNC’s 2-1 lead, which was taken when USC starter Jack Wynkoop hit Michael Russell with a two-out pitch in the second inning and Brian Holberton quickly followed with a long blast over the right-field fence.
UNC coach Mike Fox couldn’t have been happier that his highly-touted team made it back to the CWS with a chance to earn its first national title in the sport.
“I’m just very happy for these guys,” Fox said. “It’s a special time for us and our program.”
Holbrook had mixed feelings of pride in the way his team handled adversity and disappointment with the final result.
“They kept their heads above water, and they competed every single day. We didn’t always play great, but we always played hard,” Holbrook said. “We fell short of our main goal, and that’s going to burn me for a while.”
Chad Holbrook postgame
Webb, English, Westmoreland postgame
Mike Fox postgame