The Tar Heels celebrate after defeating Stanford 7-5 to win their Super Regional. CHUCK LIDDY - firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina moves on to another College World Series.
The Tar Heels rode the strong arm of freshman lefthander Kent Emanuel and their stout bats to a gritty 7-5 victory over Stanford on Saturday, rallying from a one-run deficit with a three-run effort in the top of the fourth inning.
Once on top, the Heels opened a 6-1 lead in the seventh inning, then survived a four-run inning by the Cardinal in the top of the eighth. The Heels overcame a three-hour, 32-minute rain delay and held on for their 16th consecutive post-season home victory in the NCAA's best-of-three Super Regional series before an announced crowd of 3,749 at Boshamer Stadium.
Now it’s off to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., on June 18-29. The Heels (50-14) will make their fifth appearance since 2006. They return for the first time since 2009.
The Heels also reached the World Series in 1960, 1966, 1978 and 1989. On Saturday, they became the first team to earn a berth into the series.
They will arrive to the tournament as an unexpected participant after opening this season without many of the marquee players of the recent past. Yet the Heels embarked upon their uncertain journey with a dogged confidence that has marked their play and earned them a No. 3 national seed.
Saturday's victory was especially touching for coach UNC coach Mike Fox, who missed the Regional games as he tended to his mother who was sick. She passed away last Saturday.
"It's fitting to our season," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "All the obstacles and hurdles we've had to overcome. Throw on top of that a 3 1/2 hour rain delay. We've never done much the easy way. It's been the hard way all year long."
Against the Cardinal, the Heels displayed a familiar toughness, particularly as they closed the game despite a serious late-game Cardinal threat.
UNC pitcher Greg Holt found himself in trouble in the eighth inning, yielding a hard single to Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney. Then later Brian Ragira singled up the middle, the ball taking a bad hop over UNC short stop Levi Michael’s head, scoring Gaffney.
Holt surrendered a single to Lonnie Kauppila and walked Kenny Diekroeger, then was replaced by righthand closer Michael Morin. Stanford’s Austin Wilson greeted Morin with a double to left center, bringing home Ragira, Kauppila and Diekroeger to cut UNC’s lead to 6-5.
That’s as close as Stanford would come. UNC senior Jacob Stallings saw to it.
Stallings, the team’s catcher, caught a 95 mph pitch and drilled a shot over the outstretched glove of Stanford’s Diekroeger, bringing home Michael to put the Heels ahead 7-5.
"He did come close," Stallings said. "It's a game of inches. I thought he would catch it honestly, but I'm glad he didn't."
Morin, redeeming himself, came back out and and earned a save, showcasing a powerful fastball and nasty change-up. He struck out the first two batters he faced in the bottom of the ninth and forced Stanford’s Stephen Piscotty to ground out to end the game.
Morin tossed his glove to the sky, his teammates running onto the field to acknowledge the hard-nose victory.
North Carolina's overall toughness showed up throughout the series in the way the Heels covered ground in the outfield, remained disciplined at the plate, ran through bases and, especially, in the way they pitched.
For the second consecutive day, the Heels received top-notch pitching that made all the difference early in the game. On Friday, it was senior Patrick Johnson shutting down the Cardinal, bedeviling his opponents with sliders and fastballs for a 5-2 Heels victory.
This time it was Emanuel, a 6-foot-4 lefthanded fireballer who started a little slow but soon picked up steam.
By the time he was done, fighting through stifling heat and humidity, he pitched six innings, allowing five hits, one run and a walk. He threw 113 pitches and 77 strikes, retiring five Cardinal batters. He improved his record to 8-1.
He is the first UNC freshman to win two NCAA tournament games.
The Cardinal moved ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the first inning after Tyler Gaffney drilled a shot through the middle to bring home Zach Jones from second. His RBI double reached the centerfield wall.
Stanford pitcher Jordan Pries – a junior righthander – helped the Cardinal to that early lead with a solid early performance.
Then things unraveled for him in the fourth.
Pries walked UNC batter Tommy Coyle. Then Jacob Stallings blasted a single to left field. Ben Bunting followed with a single to shallow right to bring Coyle home and tie the game at 1-1.
UNC’s Brian Holberton stepped to the plate and drilled a shot up the right foul line that narrowly stayed fair. That two-run double scored Stallings and Bunting to put the Heels ahead.
Swinging freely and accurately, the Heels solved Pries, who a week ago had been named the MVP of the Fullerton Regional. The Cardinal upset Cal State Fullerton, Kansas State and Illinois to reach the Super Regional.
Pries unveiled some of his most electric pitching during that weekend, throwing 7 2/3 shutout innings against No. 8-ranked Cal State Fullerton. He pitched four perfect innings and at one point retired 10 batters in a row.
He never found that command on Saturday.
Pries was pulled after 3 1/3 innings, resulting in his shortest weekend start of the season. He previous shortest start was on March 6 against Texas where he was taken out after 4 2/3.
The Heels tacked on three more runs in the top of the seventh, abusing Stanford reliever Brian Busick.
"In both games, I thought they just outplayed us in all phases," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "I thought we played hard and we bounced back well tonight, down 6-1 and came back and made a game of it. Defense, hitting, pitting; they just beat us in all phases."
Closing out its home schedule, the finished the season with a 36-3 record at Boshamer Stadium, securing the best winning percentage at home for a UNC team since 1985 (24-2).
"It's a proud moment," Stallings said. "I'm proud of our coaches. It's been a really tough couple of weeks on coaching staff. Just the focus that they and our team was able to have so far is pretty remarkable."