OMAHA, Neb. -- Most teams don't feel overly comfortable playing with their backs against the wall, but North Carolina is the exception. The Tar Heels seem to savor it.
North Carolina was pushed to the brink three weekends ago in the Chapel Hill Regional, needing a couple of rallies to advance to the NCAA Super Regional round past Florida Atlantic. The Tar Heels were able to get the key hits when needed that weekend. Again two weekends ago against South Carolina, the Tar Heels were in a situation when key hits were needed in the middle innings to get past the Gamecocks in the Chapel Hill Super Regional series finale. And again, the Tar Heels succeeded.
Fast-forward to the College World Series. The Tar Heels dropped a tough contest to rival North Carolina State in the CWS opener, thanks to yet another big-time performance by Wolfpack ace left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon.
Despite the setback in the opener here in Omaha, the Tar Heels once again showed their resilient nature by eliminating CWS favorite LSU from the field with an impressive 4-2 victory.
"We were able to play with a lead, and that's something we haven't done in a while," North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. "We made some big pitches down the strong, and I'm happy for these guys. I think 58 wins is the most ever in the history of North Carolina baseball."
With their season on the line Tuesday, the Tar Heels opted to start freshman right-handed pitcher Trent Thornton over usual starting pitchers Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson. Thornton spent much of the season as the midweek starter for the Tar Heels, but had served as closer the last half of the season. Thornton was making just his first start since March 27th against Winthrop.
The Tar Heels made sure Thornton didn't have major butterflies in the first inning. LSU left-handed pitcher Cody Glenn, making his first start since May 22 because of a suspension and not pitching last weekend against Oklahoma, got the starting nod for the Tigers. He seemed to be in a groove through the first two batters of the game, striking out UNC leadoff hitter Chaz Frank and inducing a fly out to designated hitter Landon Lassiter.
However, the Tar Heels put together a quick-strike approach. UNC third baseman Colin Moran, who finished the afternoon with three hits and an RBI, kept the first inning alive with a two-out single, setting the stage for catcher Brian Holberton, who has been the Tar Heels' most clutch hitter in the postseason. Holberton proceeded to deposit a 3-2 two-seam fastball into the right-field stands to give the Tar Heels a 2-0 cushion over the Tigers.
It's a lead they didn't relinquish the rest of the day.
"This team just seems to play better when our backs are against the wall," Holberton said. "When I was up there, I thought, he's going to try to throw a two-seamer in right here. He threw it in there, and I was able to put a pretty good swing on it."
Holberton's early home run was a sign of good things to come for the Tar Heels. It also was an indication of some good lineup changes on Mike Fox's part. The Tar Heels, for instance, moved Holberton to the cleanup spot behind Moran in the lineup, while they backed up Holberton with Cody Stubbs and Skye Bolt, with Bolt finally breaking out of his postseason shell with two hits and an RBI to help the offensive charge.
"Brian has been in that position before, and we felt we needed to move some things around [the lineup] a little bit," Fox said. "Having Brian in there, he can run and bunt, and it paid off today. He did pretty well out there."
While Holberton led the charge at the plate for the Tar Heels, Thornton put together quite an impressive performance on the mound.
The Heels had plenty of confidence in Thornton entering the contest. After all, they've counted on him many times down the stretch, and each time, he has delivered.
But while Florida Atlantic and South Carolina were more than worthy foes, Thornton had a new chore on Tuesday -- shutting down an LSU offensive lineup that entered the College World Series with a .304 batting average in the NCAA postseason.
Powerful or not, Thornton wasn't deterred from his pitching plan. LSU put plenty of runners on base against the freshman right-hander, but he never held back, striking out three, walking four and allowing just two runs on nine hits in seven innings of work. From a stuff standpoint, Thornton, as usual, was consistently 92-93 with his fastball, consistently handcuffing the Tigers up in the zone.
"We had a lot of confidence in Trent. We're sort of used to that. That's his 12th win, and I think that just might be the most wins every by a freshman pitcher in this program," Fox said. "He works incredibly hard and he was terrific today. He weathered the storm and made some good pitches."
UNC right-handed pitcher Chris McCue worked in relief of Thornton and also pitched well, allowing just a hit in two shutout innings of work.
Though North Carolina stays alive in Omaha, LSU's season comes to an end with an impressive 57-11 overall record. The Tigers had quite the campaign, but their bats went cold at the CWS. For instance, three-four-five hole hitters Alex Bregman, Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes went a combined 3-for-22 in the CWS, with Katz collecting all three hits.
Furthermore, in two games in Omaha, the Tigers scored just three runs, struck out seven times, and astonishingly left 20 runners on base.
"We had so many opportunities today, but couldn't come through with the big hit. There were just so many things throughout the game. It was frustrating for us," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "We just couldn't come through with the hits when needed. We didn't play our best out here, and we're disappointed with that."
As the LSU coaches and players left TD Ameritrade Park, fans donned in purple and gold chanted "L-S-U" at the top of their lungs, while Paul Mainieri and senior Raph Rhymes were the last two to walk out of the door, Mainieri's arm firmly around Rhymes shoulder, consoling him.
With LSU now gone, the CWS favorite is headed back to Baton Rouge, La. Meanwhile, the top-seeded Tar Heels are still alive.
They once again played their best with their backs against the wall.
CWS snapshot: Breaking down North Carolina-LSU
Player of the game: RHP Trent Thornton, North Carolina -- With their season on the line, the Tar Heels had absolutely no problem hinging their bets in the talented freshman righty. Thornton has been rock solid down the stretch, and was once again on Tuesday in the win over LSU. Thornton worked into trouble at times, but always seemed to find his way out. He struck out three, walked four and allowed just two runs on nine hits in seven innings of work. Thornton threw 114 pitches in the game, 70 of them for strikes.
Turning point: The turning point of the game is seldom in the first inning, but in Tuesday's elimination game in Omaha, it certainly was the case. LSU starting pitcher Cody Glenn, starting for the first time since May 22, was crisp the first two batters of the inning, getting a strikeout and fly out. However, the Tar Heels then struck with a vengeance, as UNC third baseman Colin Moran smacked a single, while catcher Brian Holberton hit a two-run home run to give the Tar Heels a 2-0 advantage. With a lead, the Tar Heels got into a groove and never looked back.
What they said: "Obviously it's a very disappointing day for all of us associated with LSU baseball. Like I told the players, you have to deal with two disappointments. You have to deal with the disappointment of losing a singular game that you felt you could have won. It was a very frustrating game. We had so many opportunities and just couldn't come through with a big hit or some of the things throughout the game that happened that just were very frustrating for us." -- LSU coach Paul Mainieri
What's next: LSU had one of the best campaigns in school history, finishing just behind Vanderbilt in the SEC regular season title race, and winning the SEC tournament title. However, they fell short of a national championship here in Omaha. Despite that, the Tigers still had a very impressive 2013 campaign, finishing the year with a 57-11 overall record. Furthermore, the Tigers had well over a .300 batting average for much of the season, but just couldn't piece things together at the College World Series. Meanwhile, for the Tar Heels, they're actually in good shape pitching-wise moving forward. Right-handed pitcher Benton Moss and left-handed pitcher Hobbs Johnson have yet to throw, while Kent Emanuel could come back later in the week as well. If there's a team that could storm out of the loser's bracket, it's definitely the Tar Heels.