CHAPEL HILL — Remember that NCAA regional disappointment that has haunted the North Carolina baseball team since last June?
Neither do the Tar Heels.
At least not anymore, now that the bitter taste those stunning upsets at the hands of Davidson have finally been cleansed from their palate. They officially became a thing of the past Saturday after a 7-5 win against Stetson at Boshamer Stadium that sends coach Mike Fox’s team back to the College World Series for the first time since 2013.
“What happened last year?” third baseman Kyle Datres deadpanned when asked about the motivation that has fueled him and his teammates throughout the season.
It was Datres’ single on the first pitch of the game Saturday that a sparked decisive first inning rally that saw UNC score four times to take a lead it would never relinquish on the way to sweeping its best-of-three Super Regional series.
The Tar Heels (43-18) also beat the Hatters 7-4 in a game that followed an eerily similar script.
For the second day in a row they built what appeared to be a comfortable lead, only to have to hang on for dear life in the ninth inning as Stetson brought the potential go-ahead run to the plate in the form of cleanup hitter Brooks Wilson.
On Friday, Wilson hit a towering drive that left fielder Ashton McGee tracked down on the warning track for the final out. Saturday, Wilson hit the ball even harder and farther. But again his blast was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
This time Brandon Riley made a leaping catch against the wall, right in front of the 400-foot sign in straightaway centerfield.
“He hit it to the deepest part of the park and that helped,” right fielder Cody Roberts said. “The question was if it was going to hit the wall before he got there.”
While Roberts expressed his confidence in Riley’s ability to make the catch, others on the field weren’t as certain as they watched the flight of the ball, fearing that it might be a walkoff home run that would have forced a deciding third game Sunday.
“It was a little stressful,” Datres said. “Same situation, same kid up to bat. He put a good swing on the one yesterday and put another good swing on the one today. We were lucky that is stayed in the park.”
Though the Tar Heels might have been a little lucky at the end, they were also very good both at the bat and on the field.
Offensively, they continued to punish a pitching staff that came into the series with the nation’s best earned run average by pushing across seven runs in each of the two games. Saturday’s outburst included 14 hits, including three by Ike Freeman and two each from Datres, McGee, Michael Busch, Zack Gahagan.
A majority of the damage came during the four-run first inning rally that included three doubles against Stetson starter Jack Perkins, who like Friday’s pitcher Logan Gilbert is a newly minted Major League draft pick.
“We knew he was going to throw a lot of offspeed and mix pitches up a lot,” Roberts said of Perkins. “We knew we had to attack the pitches that were in the zone and lay off the ones that were out. I think everybody did a good job, especially in that first inning.”
UNC extended its lead to 6-1 after 2½ innings, but that’s when Stetson (48-13) began chipping away just as it did in Game 1.
The Hatters scored twice in the third off starter Gianluca Dalatri and could have had more if not for an outstanding play by Gahagan in which he ranged far to his left to snag a hard-hit ball up the middle and throw Jorge Arenas out at first for the third out.
The Tar Heels also got a break in the fourth when an interference call on runner Kyle Ball turned into an inning ending double play.
From there on, relievers Caden O’Brien and Brett Daniels held the Hatters at bay until the ninth, when Stetson scored a run and had runners on first and second before Josh Hiatt came out of the bullpen to record the final — loud — out.
“I’m unbelievably happy for these kids,” Fox said. “They get to experience something that’s going to be a lifetime memory for them. This is one of the more special team’s I’ve been able to coach here. There’s something about them. To say we’re excited about going to Omaha is probably the biggest understatement.”
Riley’s catch touched off a joyous dogpile on the infield that was a stark contrast from the dejection many of the same players felt on the same field last year when their College World Series dream was crushed by an unheralded in-state rival.
“Being a senior, this is why I came back,” Gahagan said. “It’s just an amazing feeling. No amount of money could change this feeling.”
Texas Tech 6, Duke 4: While the Tar Heels scanned their ticket to Omaha, the Blue Devils failed to hold onto two leads in dropping its Super Regional opener in Lubbock, Tex. They will now have to win the final two games of the series to join UNC at the CWS.
Duke (44-17) led 3-0 in the fifth and 4-3 in the seventh before the Red Raiders (43-17) staged a late rally.
Gabe Holt went 3-for-5 with two runs and two RBIs for Texas Tech, including the go-ahead RBI single in the eighth inning. One batter later, he scored an insurance run on Brian Klein’s double. Zack Kone went 3-for-4 with 3 RBI to lead Duke.