It’s win or go home in Omaha for Tar Heels

After opening win, UNC on the brink of elimination following Tuesday’s loss

Tar Heels catcher Brandon Martorano can't handle a throw as Mississippi State’s Rowdey Jordan scores in the eighth inning of the Bulldogs’ 12-2 win Tuesday at the College World Series. (Steven Branscombe / USA TODAY Sports)

North Carolina faces an elimination game Wednesday at the College World Series in a rematch with Oregon State.

The Tar Heels opened the NCAA baseball championship tournament in Omaha with an 8-6 win over the Beavers in the first game of the College World Series.

The Heels had to rely on some unheralded contributors in the win, after starting pitcher Gianluca Dalatri exited just 15 pitches into the game.

“Well, like obviously you saw Gianluca kind of called us out there, and basically he said he just didn’t feel right,” coach Mike Fox said, “and that’s really all he needed to say, quite honestly.”

So, as the Carolina bullpen worked its way through the game, a pitcher who wasn’t expected to work that day ended up closing out the win.

“Actually, I was on pitching chart duty today, because I was planning on starting on Monday,” said Cooper Criswell. “And then once Luca went down, (pitching) coach (Robert) Woodard came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, we may need you today, so just be ready.’ When the opportunity came, I just switched my focus over to, ‘Hey, let’s get into the zone’ and went from there.”

Criswell worked the final 2.1 innings to earn the first save of his career. He entered with the bases loaded and struck out the first batter he faced, then finished out the game without surrendering a run.

Meanwhile, the Tar Heel offense was paced by another surprise hero. Playing for the first time in a month, Ben Casparius had three RBI, including the grounder that tied the game.

“I felt healthier the last couple of weeks or so,” the freshman, who last played on May 11, said. “And as things got better I started to get more reps in the field and hitting and taking lots of swings. And I think it was more mentally than physically; I just needed to be ready to play today, and I felt really good all day.”

The game was played in sweltering weather and lasted four hours, 24 minutes, the longest nine-inning game in College World Series history.

“Yeah, it got pretty toasty there in the middle innings and at the end,” said Zach Gahagan. “But we’ve played in hot weather. So we knew what to expect coming in here. We just kept battling. The heat, it is what it is. And you’ve got to deal with it either way. I think we handled it well today.”

“I think we all feel like we’ve been in a heavyweight fight,” added coach Fox.

And, like all good heavyweight fights, the stage was soon set for a rematch.

The Heels’ momentum was halted on Tuesday morning, however. Starting at 10 a.m. local time, after inclement weather postponed the game, originally scheduled for Monday night, the Heels had an error-filled outing against Mississippi State, falling 12-2. The Bulldogs’ Jordan Westburg finished with seven RBI, hitting a grand slam in the second inning and a bases-loaded double in the eighth that blew the game open.

Oregon State won its elimination game on Monday night, before the rains came, setting up a rematch with the Tar Heels scheduled for Wednesday.