CHAPEL HILL — Mike Fox, the North Carolina baseball coach, sent an email to his team on Monday night. Chaz Frank wasnt sure when he read it, or even if it had a subject line, yet Frank remembered the words well on Tuesday, after the Tar Heels 5-4 victory against South Carolina sent UNC to the College World Series.
In the email, Fox shared his vision. He described what the postgame celebration would be like on Tuesday, after the Tar Heels (57-10) won the third game of their Super Regional against the Gamecocks (43-21). Fox wrote of the celebratory dog pile when players climb atop each other in the moments after this kind of victory and he said he wanted in.
He just said coach (Scott) Jackson got in on the fun last time on the dog pile, and he said it looked pretty fun, said Frank, the UNC senior center fielder. And he basically told (Taylore) Cherry and (Mason) McCullough and all the big guys they need to hurry up in there so they dont crush him or get him hurt. So he wanted to get into the action this time.
So in the moments after a victory that had been a long time coming, Fox joined the celebration. He and the Tar Heels had been waiting a while for it. They had survived a 13-inning victory against Florida Atlantic in an elimination game last week, and then won in their final at-bat in the first game against South Carolina on Saturday.
And now came this: another come-from-behind victory on Tuesday, this one the most important of them all.
Thats the first one Ive jumped in in 15 years here and it might be my last one, said Fox, who has now guided UNC to the College World Series in six of the past eight seasons. But it was fun. This has been a great group.
Coach Jackson said it in the locker room it was fitting that Colin (Moran) got a big hit and Kent (Emanuel) was on the mound. Because these two guys up here have meant a lot to our program.
Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, needed just two pitches in the ninth inning to earn his first career save. Moran, the ACC Player of the Year, provided perhaps the most important hit of the game a triple to right field that drove in Landon Lassiter in the bottom of the sixth inning.
That cut South Carolinas lead to 4-3, and Moran came home with the tying run not long after when the Gamecocks committed their third error. On that play, Cody Stubbs flew out to center field. The throw came into South Carolina first baseman Kyle Martin. He attempted to throw to second, where UNCs Skye Bolt was headed after tagging up.
But Martins throw was wide and sailed into center field, and Moran ran home. Later, after a pitching change, Bolt scored the go-ahead run when Tyler Webb, the Gamecocks third pitcher, walked Parks Jordan with the bases loaded.
South Carolinas blunders came one inning after the usually-reliable Frank dropped a routine fly ball in center field. The Gamecocks had two runners on at the time, and they both scored easily to give South Carolina a 3-2 lead.
In the UNC dugout, Fox said later, My heart sank for Frank.
It was devastating at that moment, and it takes the wind out of us, Frank said of his error. But thats why this teams a tough out. And thats why were great. We just continue to pick each other up.
South Carolina scored another run in the sixth but Trent Thornton, UNCs freshman reliever, limited the damage. Thornton, who pitched four and two-thirds innings and allowed three hits and one earned run, allowed the first two batters to reach base. But he escaped the inning after allowing just a run, and left two runners stranded.
Lassiter then led off the bottom of the inning with a single, and Moran came to bat with Frank on his mind.
I dont think anyone really thought it was slipping away, but I really didnt want that play by Chaz to decide the game, Moran said. Knowing that it was the last home game for him and all the seniors, the last thing I wanted was something like that to be the last memory.
UNC advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the 10th time. The Tar Heels on Sunday will play against N.C. State, which advanced to Omaha on Sunday with a 17-inning victory against Rice.
This will be the fourth game between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. UNC prevailed in an 18-inning victory against N.C. State during the ACC tournament in Durham.
That game, like so many others recently, toughened the Tar Heels and left them with a resolve that served them well, again, on Tuesday. For the first time, they entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 national seed. They swept their way to the ACC tournament championship last month in Durham.
UNCs path to Omaha, though, was more difficult than it was in 2008, 2009 and 2011, when they didnt lose any of their six games in Super Regionals, and won all of them by at least two runs. Emanuel, the junior left-hander, thought back to how easy UNC made it look two years ago, and how difficult it was this time.
I remember freshman year when we won the second game of Supers, all the freshmen, we were talking about to each other it seemed a little too easy, it seemed like it happened real quick, Emanuel said. Definitely not the case this year. This year we had some just incredible games.
The Tar Heels have now won their past three games by one run apiece. They have come from behind in all of them and, entering the College World Series, UNC still hasnt lost consecutive games.
Even after his teams 8-0 loss against South Carolina on Sunday, Fox had a feeling it would end like this. And so he wrote his words down, shared them with his team, and then watched the Tar Heels turn them into reality.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter