CHAPEL HILL — It looked easy at the end, North Carolina closer Trent Thornton striking out five straight Canisius hitters to end the game. It looked that way. It never was. And maybe that’s the best thing for the Tar Heels.
North Carolina won 6-3, but with only a one-run lead heading into the top of the eighth inning in Friday’s NCAA tournament opener, the Tar Heels gave Canisius every chance to stick around. After what happened a year ago, it was a little too close for comfort. It was also a good sign, that the Tar Heels could face similar circumstances without stumbling again.
“We had some nerves, just jittery,” North Carolina leftfielder Brian Holbertson said. “You could kind of feel it throughout the dugout. Once we got a few runs and settled down a little bit later in the game, I think we’ll be fine from here on out.”
This was the beginning of what may be the Tar Heels’ sixth trip to the College World Series in the past eight years, and perhaps even the first national title in school history, but to move along that path the Tar Heels had to end something first.
It’s still a little hard to believe, but the Tar Heels actually lost two of their previous three NCAA tournament games at Boshamer, thanks to last year’s surprising regional elimination at the hands of St. John’s.
It was a bizarre set of circumstances, combining a lineup that fizzled unexpectedly and an award-winning closer who lost his stuff at the worst possible time to bounce the Tar Heels out of the tournament at Boshamer Stadium for the first time in almost 30 years.
That premature conclusion to North Carolina’s season has been a motivating factor this season, but closing the door on that wasn’t quite as easy as it might have seemed.
Winning the ACC tournament was one thing, redemption in the NCAA tournament another, and at times the Tar Heels seemed grimly determined to make things as difficult as possible Friday night.
They ran themselves out of four different innings, getting thrown out at the plate, getting caught stealing, getting picked off first. They walked in a run. They gave up another on a wild pitch. As fundamental baseball goes, it was as ugly as the two season-ending losses to St. John’s a year ago.
Friday, they faced similar circumstances in the eighth inning, up a run when Canisius threatened, loading the bases with one out before Thornton froze Canisius hitters for back-to-back strikeouts to survive and North Carolina tacked on a few insurance runs in the bottom half of the inning.
Had the Golden Griffins been only slightly more efficient – they left the bases loaded three times and stranded a total of 14 runners – North Carolina might have found itself fending off elimination in the early game Saturday.
Instead, the Tar Heels took care of business. After their veteran closer struggled a year ago, a freshman, Thornton, closed out the game with alacrity. Clutch hits, so hard to find a year ago, were there when needed in the eighth.
“We could have steamrolled past Canisius but it was good that we didn’t,” North Carolina center fielder Chaz Frank said. “It was good that we had a close game, so we could have that confidence that we could play in a tight game and we could hand the ball to Trent. That was pretty important for us.”
The Tar Heels aren’t only moving on in the tournament. They’re moving on from last season as well.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947