It looked like the Beavers would spoil another season for the Tar Heels as disaster struck almost immediately in the first inning.
After Oregon State scored the opening run off an RBI triple from right fielder Trevor Larnach, starting pitcher Gianluca Dalatri issued a walk and immediately beckoned to the dugout.
With his fastball sitting in the low 80s, well below his season average, it was clear that Dalatri was shaken up. Head coach Mike Fox, pitching coach Robert Woodard and the trainer converged to the mound to check on the sophomore.
After attempting some warm up tosses, it was clear Dalatri was hurt as he shook his head and handed the ball off. His day was over.
The frustration was evident on his face as he trudged to the dugout, having worked so hard to come back from nearly a three-month long injury absence to help his team in the postseason, but the strain was too much for his right arm in his fifth start since his return.
First-year Caden O’Brien entered the game in place of the 6-foot-6 Dalatri and got the final out of the first inning thanks to a smooth, bare-handed snag and throw by third baseman Kyle Datres to first baseman Michael Busch.
It was certainly not the start Fox and his team wanted, but the Tar Heels quickly bounced back in the second inning.
With two men in scoring position and one out, designated hitter Ben Casparius hit a chopping ball to the left side of the infield. The Beaver third baseman had no play at home and got the out at first as Zack Gahagan scored on the play. It was Casparius’ first at-bat since May 11 as he tied the game at one.
But in the third, UNC did the unthinkable, chasing two-time Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Luke Heimlich out of the game and scoring five runs to take a commanding 6-1 lead.
After allowing two runs in the third, Heimlich hit his second batter of the inning and third of the day to load the bases with one out and was immediately removed from the game.
Heimlich, the most controversial player in the sport, walked off the mound for possibly the last time in a Beaver uniform. Over the past year, he has been public enemy number one in college baseball after a story surfaced of Heimlich accepting a plea deal as a teenager for sexually molesting his niece, first reported by The Oregonian on June 8 of last year.
The new Beaver pitcher did not fare much better than his teammate as three more Tar Heels crossed home plate in the inning before the third out was recorded.
But it looked like Oregon State might turn it around. The Beavers scored three runs in the third inning and chased O’Brien out of the game. But senior Brett Daniels calmed the storm and produced the final two outs to end the threat and keep the game at 6-4.
From there, the two teams went silent until the bottom of the sixth inning. First-year Joey Lancellotti, who had pitched 1.1 scoreless innings, put two runners on base, and with the heart of the Beaver order up, Fox made a change.
In came closer Josh Hiatt to face Cadyn Grenier, Nick Madrigal, and Larnach. All three were picked on the first day of the 2018 MLB Draft — Grenier as the No. 37 selection, Madrigal as the No. 4 overall pick and Larnach as the 20th pick.
Grenier quickly laced a ball that was headed for left center field and it looked like trouble was brewing. But shortstop Ike Freeman leapt up and nabbed the ball out of the air and as he landed, threw the ball to second to pick off a Beaver baserunner. In addition to his solid defense, Freeman produced three hits on the day and is now hitting 13-26 in six NCAA Tournament contests.
The double play ended the inning and kept the lead intact as Hiatt nodded his approval to the shortstop while walking off the field.
But just like the four previous Tar Heel pitchers, Hiatt struggled and was replaced by Cooper Criswell with two outs in the seventh inning. Criswell was expected to start the team's next game on Monday, but with the bases loaded and Steven Kwan up with three hits already to his name, Fox made the change.
It paid off handsomely. Criswell struck Kwan out looking on a looping curveball to end the threat in the biggest at-bat of his collegiate career.
Criswell has had quite the journey, coming over from Southern Union State Community College and starting the season as a middle reliever before becoming the team's Friday starter.
And against the Beavers in Omaha on the sport's biggest stage, he earned the first save of his UNC career with his team's season possibly on the line.
The Tar Heels will next play on Monday at 7 p.m. against Mississippi State, knowing they are one step closer to ultimate glory.
And for at least one night, Fox can take a deep breath and enjoy his team's revenge.
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