NCAA baseball: UNC rolls by Towson, 8-5

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2013 

— After some of his players admitted they’d been nervous on Friday night during their opening game of the NCAA tournament, North Carolina coach Mike Fox wrote down three words on the back of his scorecard.

“Calm, cool, collected,” Fox said after the Tar Heels’ 8-5 victory against Towson on Saturday night. “Take deep breaths. That sort of thing.”

Some of what he’d written were “silly things,” Fox said, that he already knew. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. The Heels (54-8) were tense on Friday night during their 6-3 victory against Canisius. And again, there were some tense moments on Saturday against Towson (30-29).

Most of them, though, came late, with Towson attempting an improbable comeback after the Tar Heels built a lead that turned out to be insurmountable. UNC first baseman Cody Stubbs gave his team a 1-0 lead with a towering home run in the second inning, and Michael Russell drove in two runs with a single to left in the fourth.

At the time those runs seemed to be plenty of enough support for Kent Emanuel, the Heels’ junior left-hander who earned ACC Pitcher of the Year honors. Emanuel through the first five innings faced the minimum of 15 batters. He allowed two hits during that span, but picked both runners off of first with his effective move to first.

“He made one kid mad tonight,” Stubbs said of Emanuel’s pickoffs, which were his ninth and 10th of the season. “The second kid he picked off looked at me – he said a bad word. I said, I don’t know what to tell you, buddy. I don’t know what it is, but it is a great move, and it’s been working all year, obviously.”

UNC led 5-0 when Towson, the designated home team, began a comeback in the bottom of the sixth. The Tigers scored once in the sixth and once more in the seventh to cut the Heels’ lead to 5-2. UNC added two more runs in the top of the eighth – one on Russell’s run-scoring double – but Towson didn’t go away.

The Tigers, the No. 3 seed in the Chapel Hill regional and the champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, loaded the bases with one out against Emanuel in the eighth inning. Kurt Wertz, Towson’s designated hitter, drove in two runs with a single to right. Peter Bowles followed that with a sacrifice fly to left field that sent home Pat Fitzgerald. That run cut UNC’s lead to 7-5, and ended Emanuel’s night after 124 pitches.

“At this point in the season, a win’s a win,” said Emanuel, who allowed nine hits and struck out eight. “And I wasn’t too pleased with my performance, but we won so I’m as happy as can be.”

For the second consecutive night, UNC freshman closer Trent Thornton extinguished the opposition’s hope. Thornton struck out the final five batters he faced against Canisius. He was less overpowering on Saturday, but allowed just one hit while recording the final four outs.

Similar to the victory against Canisius, UNC again won without the kind of dominant performance that had become routine during the regular season. In the victory on Friday the Heels were sloppy in the base paths and on the mound, and Canisius hung around longer than it seemed likely.

UNC was sharper on Saturday night and in control throughout, despite some tense moments in the eighth. When Fox looked at the box score, though, he didn’t see the reflection of a poorly-played game staring back at him. He saw 13 hits, no errors, eight runs.

“I see what you’re saying,” he said when asked whether he could take solace in two victories that came in less-than-stellar performances. “But, I don’t.”

The victory puts the Tar Heels, who for the first time are the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, on the cusp of returning to a Super Regional for the first time since 2011. The Tar Heels on Sunday at 6 p.m. will play either Florida Atlantic or Towson again. Florida Atlantic defeated Canisius on Saturday in the early game.

With a victory on Sunday, UNC would host a Super Regional next weekend. If there’s anything the past two games had taught the Tar Heels, it’s likely this: don’t expect anything to come easily.

“I wouldn’t say we survived,” Stubbs said after UNC hung on against Towson. “I think we played good baseball. It’s the postseason – everybody’s trying to win and everybody’s a threat. There’s no bad teams at this point anymore. So I don’t feel like we’re playing bad baseball at all.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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