CHAPEL HILL — As Jacob Stallings came to bat for what everyone expected was the final time in a North Carolina uniform, the crowd at Boshamer Stadium gave him a standing ovation. Stallings, the Tar Heels senior catcher, never expected his career to end at home.
Like his teammates, he has come to expect the end to come in the College World Series, where the Tar Heels have gone in five of the past seven seasons. Instead, he walked off the field for the final time with someone elses hats and gloves scattered over the infield, the remnants of St. Johns celebration as North Carolinas season came to an unexpected and somewhat improbable end Sunday night.
The Tar Heels were eliminated from the NCAA tournament at home -- for the first time since 1983 -- with a 9-5 loss to St. Johns. They wont host a super regional next weekend. They wont be going back to Omaha. Theyre just done.
Maybe now people will realize how hard it is to get to Omaha, Stallings said. And realize what coach (Mike Fox) and the program have done over the last seven years now. I guess the other teams made it look easy, but its not easy.
It was never easy for the Tar Heels this season, who lost star third baseman Colin Moran for a big chunk of the schedule after he broke his hand punching a bathroom door and never found a reliable punch at the plate.
When you stake your future on pitching and defense, youre in trouble when you dont get enough of either.
Shane Taylor was pressed into starting Sundays late game, and only made it through two innings. The North Carolina defense committed three errors and allowed a double steal of home. Award-winning closer Michael Morin, who gave up a walk-off home run Saturday, gave up another homer Sunday afternoon against East Carolina, then walked in a run before dropping a pop fly with the bases still loaded Sunday night.
A few timely hits would have cleaned up much of that damage, particularly with the bases loaded in the seventh down 7-4, but after Stallings forced in a run with a 10-pitch walk, Cody Stubbs popped foul to the catcher and Shell McCain struck out on three pitches.
That kind of situational hitting was all too endemic on a team where all four starters had sub-3.00 ERAs but only three regulars hit .300. That requires near-perfect pitching and defense. Sundays miscues became insurmountable.
We were somewhat of a work in progress offensively, Fox said. We just never could sustain consistency, to get a couple hits back-to-back in an inning, for example. Its hard to win at this level, on this stage, if that doesnt happen. You have to have one good at-bat after another.
We had some guys that didnt have as good a year as theyve had in the past. Part of its baseball: As the season goes on, they start pressing a bit and they realize theyre not hitting the ball as well.
North Carolina had more than enough chances to win Saturday. The Tar Heels had more than enough to win Sunday. Both times, St. Johns proved the more efficient, more timely hitting team, even against North Carolinas potent pitching.
The Red Storm may have come into this regional the third seed, with North Carolina loaded with hype and expectations of yet another trip to Omaha, but when it ended Sunday night, there was no question St. Johns deserved to move on.
DeCock: (919) 829-8947 or on Twitter: @LukeDeCock