Fresh off two dramatic late-inning victories to avoid elimination, Carolina had no magic left as the underdog Fresno State Bulldogs defeated the Heels 6-1 Sunday to advance to the College World Series finals in Omaha, Neb.
“The end of the year is never fun and this is actually the worst,” an emotional UNC coach Mike Fox ’78 said. “We just didn’t have a lot of things go right for us tonight, and Fresno State had a lot to do with that.”
Seemingly in good position with a more accomplished pitching staff that was healthier and more rested, Carolina could not get by the first-ever unranked team to make it to the series finals. Fresno State (45-30) will take on the Georgia Bulldogs (44-23) in a best-of-three series beginning Monday night.
UNC junior starting pitcher Adam Warren, who had his regular rest between starts, was pitted against Clayton Allison, who had not pitched in 21 days due to tendonitis but was needed because of a depleted staff. Warren gave up four walks to the first nine batters and didn’t make it out of the second inning. Meanwhile, Allison went six strong innings, struck out six and gave up only one run.
Once into the bullpen, the momentum Carolina had after Saturday night’s victory over the Bulldogs switched back to Fresno State. UNC sophomore reliever Brian Moran gave up a two-out, two-run single to Tommy Mendonca in the third to give the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead.
In the fourth, the Heels got one run back. After singles by sophomore Tim Fedroff and senior Chad Flack, along with a one-out walk to junior Tim Federowicz, Carolina had the bases loaded. Senior Kyle Shelton walked to force in a run, drawing the Heels to within one at 2-1.
But then, a called third strike on senior Seth Williams drew the ire of the UNC coaches and set the tone of a contentious evening with home plate umpire Mitch Mele. Carolina could not push in another run that inning or any inning thereafter.
In the bottom of the fourth, UNC redshirt freshman reliever Colin Bates committed a throwing error on a pickoff play that allowed a runner to get to third. He then gave up a run-scoring single to Danny Muno to make it 3-1.
Momentum seemed to shift back to the Heels briefly when left fielder Shelton sacrificed his body to catch a third out against the side wall in foul territory. Once Shelton was deemed OK, the Carolina players seemed to be energized and even had a brief but emotional team meeting in the dugout.
But the Heels failed to score in their half of the inning, and the Bulldogs came right back for another run in the fifth. Mendonca doubled in a run off UNC senior reliever Rob Wooten to make it 4-1.
Wooten, who has been the Tar Heels’ best reliever over recent years, had a disappointing outing to close out his career – walking two batters, giving up the RBI double and hitting a batter.
UNC sophomore Alex White, the ace starting pitcher, has been called on in relief to get the Heels out of jams during the series. He stopped any further damage in the fifth as he came on and threw a double play ground ball to get out of the inning.
However, in the sixth, White’s velocity seemed to dwindle and Fresno State took advantage by rapping out three hits and putting two more runs on the board to give the Bulldogs their insurmountable 6-1 lead.
Fox said he was asking a lot of his pitchers to have them pitch three nights in a row. Once a team gets in the loser’s bracket, especially when rain dictates back-to-back-to-back games, fatigue can set in on the bullpen and it showed in this game, he said.
The UNC hitters also did not come through late in the game as they have throughout the series. Flack, hero of Saturday night’s game, said he thought the Heels were hitting the ball hard late, just as in previous games, but that the Fresno State defense shut them down. “They took a couple of hits away from us,” Flack said.
Fox said that the one thing that stood out to him in all three games against Fresno State was the terrific defensive play by the Bulldogs. “They made every play defensively against us,” he said. “Their shortstop [Muno] and their third baseman [Mendonca] were sensational.”
Mendonca was also the offensive hero as he went 3-for-4 and drove in four runs.
Fedroff and sophomore Dustin Ackley, the Tar Heels’ top hitters all year, had three hits each to lead Carolina, which ended the season at 54-14.
Fox said the team will focus on the whole season, rather than this one game. “We kinda have to in order to get over the hurt,” he said.
– Clifton Barnes ’82
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