OMAHA, Neb. — North Carolina’s season ended the only way it could’ve ended.
It wasn’t about the result. No, the result wasn’t quite what the Tar Heels had hoped it would be — that much was clear by the red eyes and downward glances that recounted Friday evening’s 4-1 loss to UCLA.
It was about the spirit behind it all. It was about the win-at-all-costs aura that surrounded this UNC (59-12) team and carried it from improbable win to improbable win throughout its postseason run.
It was there again Friday night, in the ninth inning of UNC’s final College World Series stand, as UNC rallied against one of the best closers at the collegiate level and very nearly made a game of it — very nearly pulled off the improbable yet again.
But then UCLA center fielder Brian Carroll’s glove closed around a sharply hit fly ball off the bat of Landon Lassiter with two outs and the bases loaded, and the Tar Heels’ postseason heroism finally met its match under the TD Ameritrade Park lights.
“What we did in the ninth inning is just indicative of our kids and how we played all year,” coach Mike Fox said. “Just fighting until the very end. (I’m) proud of all of them. And this has been one of my most fun seasons. And it’s because of these guys up here and the rest of them in that dugout.”
It had been an offensive struggle all night.
Before the ninth inning, Lassiter and first baseman Cody Stubbs combined for all five of UNC’s hits with three and two, respectively. UCLA starter Grant Watson was unrelenting, tacking on six scoreless innings to the seven he had already pitched early in the tournament. And the left-hander outdueled Tar Heel ace Kent Emanuel, who bounced back from his postseason slump with six innings of two-run ball — only one run earned.
Emanuel’s performance wasn’t enough to support UNC’s reeling offense, however, and a two-run seventh inning off of relievers Chris McCue, Tate Parrish and Trevor Kelley seemed to all but close the door on UNC’s season. The Tar Heels came to the plate in the top of the ninth down 4-0 and were about to face UCLA submarine closer David Berg, who had just tied the NCAA record of 23 saves in a season Tuesday against N.C. State.
The odds were bleak, the stands were half-empty, but UNC wasn’t yet ready to leave Omaha.
“At that point it was do or die,” Stubbs said. “We either did it or didn’t. We’ve been doing it all year, especially late in the season. Especially the seniors, with me and Chaz (Frank), we just didn’t want it to end there.”
True to that do-or-die mantra, Stubbs began the inning with a sharp single to right field. Freshman Skye Bolt followed with another well-hit single up the middle, and a Michael Russell walk loaded the bases with no outs.
Mike Zolk drove in the first and only run of UNC’s night with a fielder’s choice to second base — although a replay later showed that shortstop Pat Valaika had never stepped on the bag. After a Parks Jordan strike out, Frank worked the count full to load the bases and bring up Lassiter as the go-ahead run.
Lassiter, a freshman, was UNC’s hottest hitter throughout the tournament, batting .378 entering Friday night and tacking on three more hits against UCLA. He hit a 1-2 pitch from Berg with authority, but it hung up just enough for Carroll to make the final out in center.
After the game, Fox didn’t harp on the fact that his team fell just short — on the contrary, he marveled at its resiliency.
“It’s something you just don’t coach,” Fox said. “It’s within your team. We’re not going down. We’re going to keep fighting.
“This might be one of the best rides we’re ever going to be on as a coaching staff. You get teams like that occasionally, and I felt very fortunate to be a part of it. Small part.”
Fox led his team, the No. 1 seed in the College World Series and No. 1 team in the polls for most of the year, to a school-best 59 wins. The Tar Heels never lost two games in a row all season long — something Fox and his players spoke of as a point of pride after each loss the team suffered in the postseason.
Still, those accomplishments did little to soften the blow of the season-ending defeat.
Lassiter, who made the final out, was visibly the most emotional Tar Heel to take the podium at game’s end, taking a seat with reddened eyes and trying to fight back tears as the questions poured in.
“I have the same approach every game,” Lassiter said, hurriedly. “Just go there and try to get a pitch you can hit and see what happens, and we just fell short.”
As emotion threatened to overwhelm him, Emanuel, to his right, reached over to pat Lassiter on the head and to comfort the freshman — a symbolic gesture in a sense.
For Emanuel, who was taken in the third round of the MLB draft, Friday was his last hurrah in Tar Heel blue. It was his last chance to experience playing on college baseball’s largest stage.
For Lassiter, it was his first taste. And though it ultimately was a sour one, it may also be just the beginning.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.