OMAHA, Neb. — Chris Munnelly stepped on the mound to start the bottom of the eighth inning against UCLA.
It’d be the right-hander’s last outing as a Tar Heel and as a pitcher, and although it was a short one — only five pitches — it was one of conviction.
Munnelly gave Shane Zeile two strikes before forcing him to foul out.
Cody Regis got up next, but Munnelly didn’t waver against the player who scored UCLA’s first run of the night and put UNC in the hole it never climbed out of.
Regis got a first-pitch strike before flying out to center field where another veteran, Chaz Frank, caught the ball.
Sophomore Benton Moss took the bump then, getting his chance to throw in TD Ameritrade Park, and struck out Christoph Bono as the pair of North Carolina natives combined for a 1-2-3 inning.
The Tar Heels were three outs from the end of their season and although they hadn’t worked a runner past second base or gotten consecutive hits all game long, they still had hope — and the way they went down showed it.
Senior Cody Stubbs stepped to the plate to start.
He said after the game that he didn’t want it to end that way — a four-run shutout loss that had not particularly shown UNC’s offensive strengths and talents or the team’s grit, it’s fight, it’s spirit.
Neither Stubbs nor Frank wanted to end collegiate careers with at-bats that were anything short of their best.
“At that point it was do or die,” Stubbs said. “We either did it or didn’t.”
So the first baseman, who finished the season as the nations third-best RBI guy, did. Stubbs sent a single to right field after four pitches to get North Carolina started in a way that’s almost become characteristic for him in the postseason.
And it looked like just what the offense needed.
Skye Bolt, who was swinging in the six spot for the second consecutive game, followed the senior’s lead and made contact on his fifth pitch — the ball fouled off Bolt’s bat, but the next one he hit right.
The switch hitter’s single was only the second time all night that the Tar Heels put runners on base in succession.
Michael Russell was due to continue trend, and although he made no contact, he was dealt what was only the second walk for UNC of the night.
Bases loaded, no outs for Mike Zolk.
Zolk put a fielder’s choice in play to score Stubbs from third, but a ghost tag-out at second base left runners only on corners before Parks Jordan struck out from the bottom of the order.
That brought up the Tar Heels only other senior in the batting order, Frank, who was 0-4 on the night.
But his last at-bat for North Carolina was a patient one, and he was put on base with a full-count walk.
Unfortunately for him, the base he walked to was the last base the senior — who had a reputation for scrappy lead-off hitting and base stealing — would stand on in North Carolina blue.
Landon Lassiter, who’d gotten three of the team’s seven hits of the night, stepped to the plate and hit a 1-2 count ball hard to right center field.
That was it, though. For the first time all season, the team’s signature fight fell short of keeping it alive as UCLA’s centerfielder Brian Carroll caught the ball.
But the loss wasn’t what will resonate for coach Mike Fox, who says this year’s team is special, he’ll remember the way the team got along — no cliques, no “nothing,” he said.
The 2013 team was a fun one according to the coach, and it’s a team that was appropriately led by three seniors who set and helped hold the tone all season long.
“We’re fortunate to have three really good ones, and you saw evidence of that just in the ninth inning,” Fox said. “That’s just a very small fraction of what Chaz and Cody have done for us offensively. Throughout their careers and have done a lot more behind the scenes that most people are never going to know about, reporters and media and stuff that goes on just kind of within your team. It’s special, it’s the memories that you’re going to take.”
Fundamental strength and unseen-from-the-outside help are two things that Fox’s oldest team members provided all season long.
As freshman Trent Thornton was turning his solid closer role into a concrete-hard one with his performance in the last week of the regular season, Fox talked about how he’d looked to Munnelly as a mentor all season, for things both off- and on the field.
The seniors’ heart and talent was something the younger players themselves talked about, too.
Sophomore Zolk referenced Frank’s leadership and told media about the conversation the pair had in press conferences after the 13-inning Chapel Hill Regional win against FAU.
And it was Stubbs who Fox identified as an overall team leader after both the Super Regional win against South Carolina — when he recgonized Stubbs’ consistency in saying “all he ever wanted to do was play in Omaha,” — and after the season-ending 4-1 loss.
“This kid right here, he’s about as special as they come,” Fox said of Stubbs on Friday. “I’m glad he came to our program, and so glad he had the great year that he had.
“We wouldn’t be here if Cody Stubbs had not done what he had done for us this year. And Chris Munnelly, graduated. I think they’re a big reason. They’re always a big reason when teams are out here. If you don’t have a good senior class, you don’t have a good group of kids.”
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