It was three strikes and you’re out for the state’s hopes of sending a team to baseball’s College World Series this year.
North Carolina, East Carolina and Duke came up short on the road to Omaha over the weekend, with each getting eliminated from their respective NCAA Super Regionals in spectacular fashion.
The Tar Heels surrendered 13 runs in the first inning at home to Auburn in losing the deciding game of their best-of-three series on Monday. The Pirates managed just one run and eight hits in a two-game sweep at Louisville that saw them outscored by a 26-1 margin, while Duke got no-hit by Vanderbilt on Saturday, striking out 19 times, before having their season ended with a 13-2 blowout at the hands of the Commodores.
They were flameouts met by a range of emotions, none of them positive.
“It’s hard to get this close and then not be able to get there,” coach Mike Fox said after the 14-7 loss that denied UNC a second straight to Omaha.
Auburn, which won its regional at Georgia Tech as a No. 3 seed, sent 17 men to the plate — banging out nine hits and benefitting from five walks against four Tar Heels pitchers — in a rally that all but decided the game before the home team ever came to bat.
As damaging as the Tigers’ first-inning blitz was to UNC’s College World Series hopes, the more costly offensive explosion came two days earlier in Game 1. With the Tar Heels up 5-2 and heading to what appeared to be a routine victory, their bullpen let them down by allowing nine runs over the final two innings for an 11-7 loss that put them on the brink of elimination.
UNC bounced back with a 2-0 win on Sunday. But that only made the sting of Monday’s final loss all the more painful for Fox and his players.
“This team has been one of the joys of my career,” Fox said. “They’re just some of the best kids I’ll be around. They’re Tar Heels and they wanted to win, win for each other for all the right reasons.”
While Fox and his ACC Tournament champions held back tears of disappointment over their unceremonious departure from the tournament, ECU coach Cliff Godwin lashed out with some angry words for the NCAA and a selection process he believes put his team at an insurmountable disadvantage.
Godwin was specifically upset that the 10th-seeded Pirates were denied a top-eight national seed that would have allowed them to host a Super Regional instead of having to play on the road at No. 7 Louisville.
“I guess that’s the way it is when you’re a non-Power Five school,” he said. “These guys, in my opinion, earned the right to be a national seed. Not over Louisville, but they had the fifth RPI in the country, won 42 regular-season games, had the 11th nonconference strength of schedule and didn’t even sniff a national seed. In my opinion, that’s not right.”
Godwin was even more fired up about the lack of preparation time his team was given in its bid to reach the CWS for the first time in school history.
While some teams got to wait until Saturday to begin their best-of-three series, ECU was scheduled to play its Game 1 at noon on Friday — only about 72 hours after battling through the loser’s bracket to win its rain-delayed regional in Greenville late Monday night.
Louisville jumped on Pirates ace Jake Agnos for four runs in the fourth inning of Game 1 and never let up on the way to a 14-1 victory. ECU then came within a ninth-inning single of getting no-hit in an anti-climactic 12-0 Game 2 defeat.
“Our guys just ran out of gas,” Godwin said. “You’d think for student-athlete welfare, the NCAA is so concerned about that, we wouldn’t have to play the first game on Friday.”
“I’m not being a sore loser,” Godwin added,” but I’m protecting my guys and my guys deserve that. I was going to say this whether we won the Super Regional or lost it.”
Duke’s Chris Pollard was able to be more philosophical after watching his team, which wasn’t expected to get this far, fall one win shy of Omaha for the second straight year.
After getting off to a strong start with an 18-5 upset of the second-seeded Commodores on Friday, which included a 10-run eighth, the Blue Devils’ bats went silent. They first fell victim to a historic masterpiece by Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker, then mustered only a pair of solo home runs and three other hits in Sunday’s decisive finale.
“It obviously stings a lot to get this close two years in a row,” Pollard said. “To be one game away from Omaha two years in a row is very difficult. At the same time, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. This team took a lot tougher path to get to a Super Regional.”