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Maybe it’s the atmosphere. Maybe it’s the television coverage. Or maybe it’s the milkshakes across the street from the stadium. Whatever the reason, the Tar Heels aren’t looking to leave Omaha anytime soon.
Robert Woodard regained his regular season form, and Dustin Ackley snapped his slump in a big way to power North Carolina to a 6-1 victory over Rice in a must-win game Wednesday afternoon.
Carolina (56-14) survived its second elimination game in as many days and now plays Rice (56-13) again today at 7 p.m. for the right to face Oregon State in the College World Series final. The game will be aired on ESPN2. A Carolina win would set up a rematch of last year’s championship.
Woodard (11-2) pitched like a senior who wasn’t ready to see his season end, going 6 2/3 innings and allowing just one run on five hits with four strikeouts. Woodard, whose 34 career wins are a UNC record, gave Carolina its second straight quality start; sophomore Luke Putkonen pitched a gem in a Tuesday victory over Louisville.
Andrew Carignan repeated his dominant late-inning performance by throwing 1 2/3 innings of one-hit ball against a Rice club that torched the Heels for double-digit runs in a 14-4 win Sunday in the teams’ first meeting.
“It’s been a heck of a ride, one that we’re not ready to have done with,” said Woodard, who threw a three-hit shutout against Clemson in Rosenblatt Stadium almost a year ago today. “This is pretty much a dream.”
Carolina’s offense kept the dream alive by scoring early and giving Woodard a lead to work with. The Heels took a 3-0 lead into the seventh, when Ackley put the game out of reach with a two-out, three-run shot over the left field wall that made it 6-0. It was Carolina’s first home run of the CWS, and Ackley’s first extra base hit in Omaha.
Ackley hasn’t looked anything like the ACC Freshman of the Year in postseason play. The Tar Heel first baseman has been solid with his glove, but he entered Wednesday’s contest carrying a .125 batting average in 10 NCAA games. At one point during Wednesday’s game, his season average dipped under .400 for the first time since May 27.
Coach Mike Fox ’78 dropped Ackley to seventh in the order, but he refused to scratch his All-American altogether. Fox’s faith paid off.
“I haven’t been putting good swings on it lately,” said Ackley, who nearly hit another home run in the ninth. “I put a few good ones today, and one of them went out.”
For both Ackley and Woodard, it was a day of redemption. Woodard was fresh off of the worst outing of his four-year career.