RALEIGH — The disappointment from Thursdays season-ending loss to North Carolina in the College World Series was still fresh when N.C. States baseball team got back home Friday and was greeted by fans outside Doak Field.
But Thursdays 7-0 loss to UNC felt more like a coda than an ending to Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent, who was still wrestling with the mistakes from Tuesdays 2-1 loss to UCLA.
We had that game won, Avent said Friday.
The Wolfpack, which won a school-record 50 games and returned to the CWS for the first time since 1968, never seemed to emotionally refocus for the Tar Heels on Thursday, a problem compounded by UNCs focus to avenge Sundays 7-1 loss to N.C. State.
Avent defended his decision to use sophomore pitcher Carlos Rodon on short rest on Thursday but ultimately tipped his cap to a UNC team he called the best hitting team in the country.
What Avent couldnt reconcile was how the UCLA game, in which a victory would have kept the Wolfpack in the winners bracket of the double-elimination format, got away from the Wolfpack.
With runners on second and third in the bottom of the third inning, N.C. State had its best hitter, sophomore shortstop Trea Turner, at the plate. Turner delivered a single to left field, which easily scored Bryan Adametz from third.
But Jake Armstrong, who was on second, was thrown out at the plate after a bizarre, ultimately unlucky sequence for N.C. State.
We made a terrible base-running error, Avent said. And Im not going to put that on one person, but thats the second run in a park that you cant score (in) against a team you can get out.
Three days and one game later, Avent was still replaying Armstrongs out in his mind. With the ball hit in front of him, Armstrong stopped at third. A poor throw ball by UCLA leftfielder Brenton Allen sailed past catcher Shane Zeile but the ball ricocheted off the backstop to Zeile, who easily threw Armstrong out at the plate.
Instead of a 2-0 lead, with Turner likely on third, N.C. State left the third inning with a 1-0 advantage. UCLA erased that with two manufactured runs in the fifth.
Avent thought the Wolfpack got away with the mistake when Turner blasted a shot to the left-field wall, which looked like a three-run home run but ended up as just a long out.
Ill always remember jumping out of the dugout knowing that ball was gone to watch go us up 4-2, and it doesnt happen, Avent said.
Instead of moving on to Fridays game in the winners bracket, the Wolfpack was relegated to Thursdays rematch with a hungry UNC team in the losers bracket.
If we win that (UCLA) game, then maybe Carolina beats us twice, or UCLA, but I like our chances, Avent said.
Theres still a lot to be proud of this season, Avent said, its just too close to the ending to appreciate the accomplishments to get to Omaha.
The bright side for Avent and the Wolfpack is under college baseball rules, sophomores cant turn pro. Earlier this week, ESPN projected Rodon and Turner both sophomores to be the top two overall picks in the 2014 draft.
Both will be back next season, along with seven regulars from the starting lineup, but a big senior class with eight regulars will have to be replaced.
Weve got a good nucleus coming back but we lost some great, great seniors and great leadership, Avent said. Thats not easy to replace.
After Thursdays loss, Turner was already talking about next season. He pointed out the school has never won the College World Series and the ACC hasnt had a national champion in baseball since 1955.
So we definitely want to come back and try to change that, Turner said Thursday.
Rodon, who took Thursdays loss after beating UNC on Sunday, offered a 2013 version of a guarantee before the team boarded its charter flight for Raleigh.
Never thought Nebraska would be this awesome. Gonna miss it! See you next year Omaha, Rodon wrote on his Twitter account Friday.