Gamecocks rout Tar Heels to force deciding game

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 9, 2013 

— Mike Fox doesn’t anticipate he’ll say all that much before North Carolina’s game against South Carolina here on Monday, which will decide which team advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and which team plays for the final time.

“If I have to say a whole lot then they’re missing the picture here,” Fox, the Tar Heels coach, said after his team’s 8-0 loss against the Gamecocks on Sunday at Boshamer Stadium. “We knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Our last two or three weeks hasn’t been easy. So less is more at this point.”

The Heels (56-10) set a regular season record for victories. They swept their way to the ACC tournament championship last month in Durham. They spent much of the season ranked No. 1 nationally, and for the first time in school history earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

But now it’s a one-game season, at 7 p.m. Monday, for both UNC and South Carolina, which in each of the past three seasons has advanced to the championship matchup at the College World Series. UNC on Saturday won the first game of the Super Regional on Skye Bolt’s RBI single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. But the Heels mustered nothing against South Carolina left-hander Jordan Montgomery, who pitched a complete game shutout on Sunday.

Montgomery allowed four hits, struck out three and walked one batter. He didn’t allow a runner past second base. The defeat was UNC’s most lopsided of the season, and it was the first time since a 4-0 loss on April 10, 2012, that the Tar Heels, who lead the nation in runs, failed to score. The four hits tied their season low.

With the victory, South Carolina (43-19) is 8-1 in NCAA tournament elimination games since 2010, when the Gamecocks won the first of consecutive national championships. Over the past three years, they have developed a resolve that served them well on Sunday.

“We’re definitely scrappy,” said Montgomery, a junior who pitched the first complete game shutout of his collegiate career. “That’s always been imbedded in us … we’ve got a bunch of bulldogs on our team.”

While Montgomery controlled the Tar Heels’ hitters, UNC’s starting pitching faltered for the second consecutive day. Hobbs Johnson, the Heels’ junior left-hander, hadn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of his 44 career collegiate appearances.

But Johnson allowed five runs on Sunday and lasted just one and two-thirds innings.

“Just terrible,” Johnson said of his start. “… It was frustrating. That’s probably the hardest I’ve been hit in my career. Just goes to them being a good hitting team. They make you pay when you leave the ball up.”

Johnson’s poor start came one day after Kent Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, lasted two and one-third innings on Saturday. Combined, UNC’s first two starters of the series recorded 12 outs.

Johnson on Sunday escaped trouble in the first inning but left the game in the second after allowing consecutive two-RBI hits. The Gamecocks’ shortstop Joey Pankake drove in two runs with a bases-loaded double to left field, and LB Dantzler, the designated hitter, drove in two more with a single to right.

Reilly Hovis, who relieved Johnson in the second, was one of five relief pitchers the Tar Heels used on Sunday. None of them threw more than Hovis’ 39 pitches, and none of them remained in the game longer than the two innings that Trevor Kelley pitched.

The Gamecocks added another run in the fourth and finished their scoring with two in the fifth. Even then, South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook wasn’t comfortable with an eight-run lead – not with the way the Tar Heels have come back again and again during the postseason.

“I’ve seen them come back before,” Holbrook said. “… They can score runs in a hurry.”

Not on Sunday, though. Not with the way Montogomery was pitching. In four career starts in the NCAA tournament, Montgomery has now allowed just two earned runs in 30 and two-thirds innings pitched. He successfully used inside fastballs and off-speed pitches on the outer part of the plate to dominate the Heels like they hadn’t been all season. Now UNC will play in another elimination game.

The Tar Heels needed 13 innings to prevail in their first one – a 12-11victory against Florida Atlantic on Monday night. That victory came after UNC twice won in extra innings during the ACC tournament.

“Tomorrow if we win, you could say it was the best thing that’s happened to us,” Landon Lassiter, UNC’s freshman designated hitter, said. “We’ve been against the wall all year and we’ll just come ready to play tomorrow and we’ll see what happens.”

UNC during the first two games of the Super Regional has used 11 pitchers, but none of them have thrown more than Emanuel’s 63 pitches. The Gamecocks have used four pitchers in two games, and Montgomery’s performance gave the bullpen the day off on Sunday.

Benton Moss, a sophomore left-hander, will start for the Tar Heels on Monday. That start will come one week after his most recent appearance, in which he surrendered a ninth-inning grand slam against FAU. Fox seemed unfazed on Sunday by Moss’ recent struggles. Fox said he’d remind Moss of his past success.

The Tar Heels haven’t lost consecutive games this season. If that streak continues they’ll return to Omaha for the sixth time in the past eight seasons.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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