OMAHA, Neb. — It had looked so easy for North Carolina during its first six games of the NCAA Tournament, what with its strong arms, hot bats and close-to-errorless defense.
But if it wants to reach the championship series for the third straight season, it now must take the hard road.
By losing to Fresno State 5-3 Tuesday night in the College World Series, the Tar Heels will have to beat LSU in an elimination game on Thursday at 7 p.m., then Fresno State on both Friday and Saturday, to advance to the best-of-three finale.
The Bulldogs — the lowest seed to ever reach the CWS — were supposed to be severe underdogs in this game, considering injures had them thin at pitcher.
Instead, it was the Tar Heels who looked shaky at times on the mound.
Despite home runs by the Fresno State in the first and fourth innings, UNC led 3-2 in the bottom of the fifth. That's when the Bulldogs loaded the bases, forcing UNC to replace starter Adam Warren (four runs on nine hits in four innings) with sophomore Brian Moran.
After a fielder's choice, Bulldog Alan Ahmady hit a two-RBI single to give his team back the lead, 4-3. With two outs and runners and second and third, the Bulldogs put in right-hander Danny Grubb (instead of Overland, a left-hander) to face UNC's leftie, so Carolina coach coach Mike Fox replaced Moran with right-hander Rob Wooten. It worked. Grubb floated out to the shortstop to end the inning.
In the sixth, Wooten and UNC's defense got out of a jam after it loaded the bases with its first error since the regionals (by shortstop Ryan Graepel), a walk and a hit batter. Fresno State got two more batters on base with no outs in the seventh, and left both of them on base, too.
But Carolina couldn't capitalize.
In the eighth, after third baseman Chad Flack singled, teammate Seth Williams whacked a base hit to centerfield, then advanced to second on a throw to third. With runners at second and third with two outs, the Bulldogs inserted their fourth pitcher of the game, Brandon Burke, and third baseman Tommy Mendonca threw out UNC pinch hitter Garrett Gore for the third out.
In the bottom of the eighth, Fresno State second baseman Erik Wetzel gave his team a cushion with an RBI single to left field to make it 5-3 with the top of UNC's order set to come to the plate.
Dustin Ackley grounded out.Kyle Shelton struck out swinging. And after Tim Fedroff singled to center, Tim Federowicz hit a fly ball to right field.
Warren (9-2) picked up only the second loss of his career.
UNC has taken the long road to the championship series before, losing in the second game last season then winning three straight to force a rematch with Oregon State for the national title. The Tar Heels lost to OSU in three games.