OMAHA, Neb. — The stakes have been high for North Carolina and N.C. State in each of their past two meetings the first in the ACC tournament last month and the most recent one earlier this week in the College World Series. But now the Tar Heels and Wolfpack will play on Thursday with both teams needing to win to extend their seasons.
UNC survived on Tuesday with a victory against LSU, but N.C. State suffered a 2-1 defeat against UCLA on Tuesday night in the winners bracket of the College World Series. The loss, the first of the NCAA tournament for the Wolfpack, sends N.C. State to the losers bracket, where a rematch awaits with its fiercest rival.
The Wolfpack (50-15) has advanced throughout the tournament thanks to strong pitching and clutch hitting. N.C. State possessed one of those elements on Tuesday night, but the Wolfpacks offense generated few scoring chances against the Bruins, who boast one of the best pitching staffs in the country.
Pitching and defense carried the Bruins (46-17) to this point, and it carried them again on Tuesday night. They threw out a runner at home in the third inning, and then left fielder Christoph Bono, who entered the game as a defensive replacement, preserved UCLAs lead with an over-the-shoulder catch in left field in the eighth inning.
Bonos catch effectively ended the Wolfpacks final scoring chance. Leadoff batter Trea Turner came to the plate with runners on first and second with one out, and he drove Dave Bergs pitch to deep left. But Bono caught it on the run, near the warning track.
Off the bat, it appeared Turner might have hit the pitch well enough to send it over the fence for a go-ahead three-run home run.
I was dumb enough to (think it was out), Turner said. Thats about as good as I can hit a ball right. And unfortunately it fell a few feet short and that could have been the difference in the game.
Berg, one of the best closers in the country, then struck out Jake Fincher to end the inning and leave the two runners stranded. Berg, who entered the game with a 0.87 ERA in 47 appearances this season, earned his 23rd save of the season. That ties an NCAA single-season record.
Bergs Berg, and hes a stud and he doesnt miss very many spots, Turner said. His stuff is about unhittable, because it sinks so much.
A sophomore right-hander, Berg finished what Nick Vander Tuig started. Vander Tuig has been mostly dominant this season as the Bruins No. 2 starter, and he was again on Tuesday. He pitched seven innings, allowed four hits and gave up one run while striking out six. He left the game without issuing a walk.
Even so, the Bruins had to rally after falling behind 1-0 in the third inning.
UCLA took the lead for good in the top of the fifth. After an out, a walk and a single, the Bruins loaded the bases when Logan Jernigan, the sophomore right-hander, walked Brian Carroll, UCLAs center fielder and leadoff hitter. N.C. State changed pitchers, bringing in Grant Sasser, the senior right-hander.
Sasser allowed a single to Kevin Kramer, and that drove in Cody Regis with the tying run. After a pop out, Sasser threw a wild pitch, which allowed Allen to score the go-ahead run.
That was all UCLA needed.
N.C. State scored its first and only run in the bottom of the third, after Vander Tuig made the first of his few mistakes. He opened the inning by hitting Bryan Adametz, the Wolfpacks left fielder. After a single and a sacrifice bunt, the Wolfpack had runners on second and third with nobody out for the top of their order.
Turner, the sophomore shortstop, came through with a single to left that drove in Adametz. Jake Armstrong, the N.C. State designated hitter, also tried to score on the hit when UCLA left fielder Brenton Allen threw wildly back into the infield.
Allens throw soared over home plate and ricocheted off the backstop. But Armstong was late making his move home, and Shane Zeile, the Bruins catcher, retrieved Allens wild throw in time to throw to Vander Tuig, who tagged Armstrong out at the plate.
As it turned out, that was one of N.C. States last scoring chances. After Turner moved to third on a wild pitch, Vander Tuig escaped the inning on Jake Finchers fly-out to left.
Tarran Senay singled against Berg with one out in the bottom of the ninth, but Berg struck out Grant Clyde on three pitches, and then struck out Brett Williams to end the game.
The winner of the UNC-N.C. State game on Thursday will play UCLA on Friday. The UNC-N.C. State winner would then have to defeat the Bruins twice to advance to the championship series of the College World Series.
Elliott Avent, the N.C. State coach, said he would replay the defeat. The few mistakes his team are likely to weigh heavily on his mind. The Bruins capitalized on those mistakes, and didnt make any of their own.
We got beat, we didnt do things exactly right, Avent said. We played well. But at this point you have to play a little more than well. Because sometimes well isnt good enough, and it wasnt tonight.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter