CWS opener a game of 'firsts' for Tar Heels

CorrespondentJune 17, 2011 

— North Carolina pitcher Patrick Johnson figures the pressure is going to be on him just after 1 o’clock Saturday afternoon.

Shortly after former President George W. Bush throws the ceremonial first pitch before the first College World Series game at TD Ameritrade Park, Johnson will throw the first real pitch.

“It’s going to be a great honor,’’ said Johnson, the Tar Heels’ ace. “We were talking about it the other day, what a great honor it was to be able to say we got to play in the first College World Series game at this stadium.

“Then someone said, ‘Wait, you get to throw the first pitch.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s awesome, and to get to follow up George Bush is pretty awesome, too."

So will the former president or the North Carolina pitcher throw the first strike?

“I’ve seen George Bush throw one out before, I think at Yankee Stadium,’’

Johnson said, laughing. “He threw a strike in there, and I’m hoping he does that again tomorrow.’’

North Carolina catcher Jacob Stallings is hoping that Johnson’s first pitch isn’t too good.

“I hope it doesn’t get hit into play," Stallings said. “I want to catch it. It’s definitely cool getting to play in the first game and it’s something that I’ll be able to tell my children and grandchildren some day.’’

Of course, the story will be more enjoyable to retell if the Tar Heels also can be the first team to win a CWS game at the new $131 million stadium, which replaces Rosenblatt Stadium as the home of the CWS.

Beating the Commodores will not be an easy chore. This Vanderbilt team had 12 players selected in the recent Major League Baseball first-year player draft.

One of the 12 was Sonny Gray, the pitcher North Carolina will face Saturday. Gray, the 18th pick of the draft by the Oakland Athletics, brings a 12-3 record and a 1.97 ERA into the CWS opener.

Like North Carolina, Vanderbilt steamrolled its way to Omaha in sweeping through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The 52-10 Commodores outscored five opponents 46-7. Their closest game was a 6-1 victory over Belmont in the regional championship game.

Unlike North Carolina, which is playing in Omaha for the fifth time in six seasons, Vanderbilt is making the program’s first CWS appearance. Under Tim Corbin, the Commodores made it to the super regional in 2004 and 2010 but couldn’t get over the hump.

“We’ve come close,’’ said Corbin, who has built Vanderbilt’s program into one of the nation’s elite since taking the job nine years ago. “But there is a difference to having regular-season success and postseason success.

“We were very frustrated last year. We thought this group could take us forward but you never know. We’re fortunate to get here, and it’s probably a relief for some people. But now that we’re here, we just want to play ball.’’

North Carolina relies on several players that were key contributors to getting the Tar Heels to Omaha in 2009, and several more that played secondary roles. Coach Mike Fox, who also played in Omaha as a North Carolina player, figured that experience could benefit his club this season.

But he also knew how difficult it can be to have everything come together in order to have a chance to play on college baseball’s grandest stage.

“I can’t say when the season started that we expected to be here,’’ Fox said. “Somehow, over the course of the year, we started playing well and our kids started believing. We feel fortunate to be in this field.

“It’s scary to look at all the other teams here and know just how good they are."

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