North Carolina knows what’s at stake.
They’ve lived it in last year’s demise to Davidson in the Regionals and the start to this season. And with the scars of those experiences finally healing, the team isn’t interested in reopening old wounds.
“We lost the first game last year in Regionals, so we know exactly what it feels like. I don't really have to say anything other than it sucked being behind in a Regional, being behind 0-1,” sophomore pitcher Gianluca Dalatri said. “And I can only imagine how much it sucks being behind 0-1 in a College World Series. We're going to do what we can to not lose to Oregon State."
None of the currently players were around at the time, but the last two matchups between the team were in 2006 and 2007, when the Beavers beat UNC two years in a row in the championship series.
But the Tar Heels have a one track goal in mind this year: don’t fall behind. When you fall behind it’s tough to crawl back, and they’ve already experienced that this season.
UNC had to rebound from an ugly 7-7 start to the season back to the top, turning it all around after a 1-0 loss to Gardner-Webb in March. Since then it has done a lot of winning lately — playing their best baseball of the season.
Over the last stretch of the season, the Tar Heels have won 17 of their last 22 games, hitting their stride from both the mound and the plate. They're hitting .335 as a team in the NCAA tournament, while pitching as a staff for a 3.60 ERA in those last five games.
Last weekend, with a shot at the College World Series in play, the team hammered first round draft pick Logan Gilbert and Jack Perkins for 23 hits, knocking Stetson out of the postseason by big innings, solid starts from Cooper Criswell and Dalatri and a committee of relievers who held onto the lead.
The blueprint last weekend was to rattle the opposing starters early and force the Hatters to burn into the bullpen. It worked with Gilbert exiting after 5.1 innings, one of his shortest outings of the season, and Perkins getting yanked after just 2.1.
But all that success won't help them against lefty Luke Heimlich — maybe the biggest challenge to the team all season. Head coach Mike Fox said against him there will be a different kind of game plan.
“We tell our guys the way you hit a good breaking ball is you hit his fastball first,” Fox said. “That may be our one and only game plan to get a fastball and try to hit it before you get that breaking ball.”
Heimlich throws in the low-90s and relies on an effective curveball and change-up as his out pitches. Fox wouldn’t confirm if he would be the best pitcher his team would face all year, but the accolades are worthy of that kind of nod.
He is a first round talent, but went undrafted because of concerns stemming from a guilty plea for molesting a 6-year old relative as a teenager. He has been an All-American, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and consistently one of the best pitchers in the country for the past two seasons. For the Beavers this season, he has started 17 games to the tune of a 2.32 ERA, struck out 151 batters and given up 91 hits in 120.1 innings.
Behind Heimlich, the Beavers have a .320 team batting average this season with nearly 10 qualifying .300 hitters. The team's hitters have accounted for 49 runs in the postseason.
To combat those numbers, North Carolina hopes to jump out on first pitch fastballs when it can in order to replicate the performance a week ago at the plate. A challenge lies ahead in tough pitching and an offense that can back him up, but it isn’t anything the team thinks can’t be overcome.
"He's definitely one of the better pitchers we've faced all year,” Busch said, “but I don't think it's anything we can't handle.”
Fox said he has not yet decided who will be the counterpart to Heimlich on Saturday, but it will either be Criswell or Dalatri.
But above all, the Tar Heels have stressed they're enjoying the moment. They can't be sure when they might be back. After making the College World Series in 2013, the team took a five year hiatus from contention until this season.
Now that they’ve made it back, they’re ready to make the most of an opportunity to chase after a championship — though nothing from here will be easily done.
"This university and that coaching staff has given me one of the greatest opportunities to play here and there's nothing that I would want more than to give coach Fox, the rest of this coaching staff and this university a national championship,” Busch said. “It's going to be tough, but at the end of the day when you start playing for something bigger than yourself, that's when you can really do some damage."
11: The Tar Heels have made the College World Series for the 11th time in program history in 2018.
.423: UNC's team slugging percentage so far this year entering play in Omaha. The team will need those numbers to stay consistent the last few games of the year if it wants to make a run.
7: The number of qualifying Oregon State hitters with a .300 average or better this season.
7: The number of UNC starters with a multi-hit weekend against Stetson in the Super Regionals. Ike Freeman, Kyle Datres, Busch, Zack Gahagan, Brandon Riley, Cody Roberts and Ashton McGee all had two hits or more.
0: The number of losses for the Beavers this season at a neutral site.
2: The number of losses it takes to be eliminated from CWS contention until a best-of-three championship series.
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