UNC staves off South Carolina, advances to College World Series
Senior Chaz Frank dropped a fly ball in the top of the fifth inning of the third game of North Carolina baseball’s NCAA Super Regional on Tuesday.
The mistake — one unlike any the veteran outfielder has made all season — allowed South Carolina to score two unearned runs to take a 3-2 lead.
Coach Mike Fox’s heart dropped, he said, and it was the type of error that took the wind out of the team, Frank admitted.
But it’s also the type of gone-wrong play that reflects the mentality of a 57-10 team headed to the College World Series.
The Tar Heels rallied in the bottom of the sixth inning to score three runs and take the 5-4 lead they held through the end of the game.
“After (the error), it kind of sucked,” said winning pitcher Trent Thornton, who was on the mound at that point. “But the whole team, we haven’t given up all year, and I knew that wasn’t going to be the deciding factor in this game. We all have Chaz’s back.”
Two batters into the top of the third inning, up 2-1, UNC pulled Thornton from the bullpen to replace starter Benton Moss. Thornton got his team through two scoreless innings as South Carolina held UNC just as tight, preventing the home team from extending its lead.
In the fifth inning, South Carolina’s offense got as much action as it had all game, with three batters reaching base on a walk and two bunts before Chase Vergason struck out.
It looked like UNC had regained control as Frank reached for the ball in right-center field off Joey Pankake’s bat for what would’ve been the final out of the inning.
But then came the drop.
Thornton struck out his next batter, ending the inning and providing proof of his team’s resiliency.
The behavior in the dugout after the inning reflected the same mindset — one of not letting the drop effect the game.
“Our guys were picking (Frank) up as soon as he came in, just talking about attitude and stuff,” Fox said. “I know how bad he felt, and I’m so glad — I’m so glad — that we got it done.”
It took North Carolina a full inning for the offense to match its confidence. But when the offense got started back up, it scored just the number of runs it needed.
Junior third baseman Colin Moran rocketed a triple to right field in the bottom of the sixth inning — his first at-bat after the drop — scoring Landon Lassiter from first base and putting himself in position to score the tying run.
It was Moran’s only hit of the day, after lining into a double play in both of his first at-bats, and while he said he was scared it would happen a third time, it was just the hit the team needed.
“I don’t really think anybody thought it was slipping away (when that happened),” Moran said. “But I really didn’t want that play to decide the game.”
“Knowing that it was the last home game for (Frank) and all the seniors, the last thing I wanted was for something like that to be the last memory.”
Skye Bolt was hit by a pitch, putting runners on the corners for senior Cody Stubbs with no outs, and although he flied out, a Gamecock throwing error gave Moran time to run home and Bolt time to advance to scoring position.
Then, after a Michael Russell intentional walk, Mike Zolk and Parks Jordan both walked to load the bases and ultimately force home UNC’s fifth and game-winning run.
Thornton, right-hander Chris McCue and eventually ace lefty Kent Emanuel all held South Carolina scoreless to give UNC its sixth trip to Omaha, Neb., in eight seasons. For Emanuel, who entered with one out in the ninth, it was his shortest career outing and first career save.
Fox has noted this 2013 team’s distaste for losing all season and said he knows that this particular team does a good job of coaching itself around failure, which are two qualities that have helped the veteran coach develop the level of faith he has in his players — and two qualities that helped UNC overcome Frank’s potentially game-changing error in the fifth.
“You’ve got to try to stay calm and trust these guys,” Fox said. “I told them before the game today how much I trust them.
“It’s easy for me to sit here and say that this team really deserves to go to Omaha and be in the (College) World Series, but I really, truly believe that.”