OMAHA, Neb. — North Carolina began the season ranked No. 1 in the country, and the Tar Heels remained atop the national polls for most of the season. They won more games than any team in school history, and won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships.
But the ending was not one to remember for UNC, which on Friday night suffered a season-ending 4-1 loss against UCLA in the College World Series. The Tar Heels throughout the postseason excelled at wild comebacks. They thrived in elimination games, their season pushed to brink of extinction.
There was the 18-inning victory against N.C. State in the ACC tournament in what might have been the greatest college baseball game ever played in North Carolina. There was the dramatic 13-inning victory against Florida Atlantic, and then another comeback victory against South Carolina in a Super Regional.
For a short while, when UNC (59-12) loaded the bases with nobody out in the ninth inning, the Tar Heels appeared to have some magic left. But it finally ran out when Landon Lassiter, the freshman designated hitter, flew out to end the game, leaving the bases loaded.
What we did in the ninth inning is indicative of our kids and what weve done all year, UNC coach Mike Fox said. Fight to the very end.
The story on Friday was simple: The Tar Heels failed to generate consistent scoring chances against Grant Watson and the UCLA pitching staff. And on the other side, UCLA (47-17), which has been among the weakest hitting teams in the nation this season, made the most of its limited opportunities.
UNC and UCLA entered Friday night on opposite ends of college baseballs statistical spectrum. At least offensively. The Tar Heels ranked fourth nationally in runs per game (7.7) and 20th in batting average (.305). No team in the country had scored more than the Tar Heels 534 runs.
The Bruins, meanwhile, brought an offense of meager means to Omaha. Before the game on Friday, they ranked 261st nationally in batting average (.249) and 211th in runs per game (4.7). Yet UCLAs pitching staff is one of the best in the nation.
The events on Friday night again proved the old baseball cliché: Good pitching beats good hitting. Especially in a place with the deep dimensions of T.D. Ameritrade Park, where home runs and extra base hits have been as rare in this College World Series as a vegetarian at The Drover the famous Omaha steakhouse.
UCLA scored its first run in the second inning, when Cody Regis, the Bruins second baseman, singled to right field with two outs. The hit by Regis, who entered the game batting .231, drove in Pat Gallagher, who reached base on a single with one out.
The Bruins then used a familiar formula to extend their lead in the sixth: They capitalized on an opponents mistake.
UCLA did that in their first College World Series victory on Sunday against LSU, when both of the Bruins runs were unearned. UCLA scored the winning run against N.C. State on Tuesday night thanks to a wild pitch.
So it didnt bode well for UNC when Cody Stubbs error at first base the Tar Heels first and only of the game allowed Eric Filia to reach base to lead off the sixth inning. From there, a sacrifice bunt moved Filia to second, and a single moved him to third.
He came home on another single this one from Kevin Williams, a .222 hitter. The Bruins loaded the bases against Kent Emaneul, the Tar Heels junior lefthander, but he ended the inning with a strikeout.
Trevor Kelley wasnt so fortunate the next inning. Kelley was UNCs fourth pitcher of the game and third of the inning, and he entered with runners on first and second with one out. The first batter he faced, Pat Valaika, drove a line drive down the left field line. It settled in the corner, and Brian Carroll and Eric Filia scored easily to give the Bruins a 4-0 lead.
Valaikas double was the third run-scoring hit UCLA received from a sub-.250 hitter. That was the difference on Friday: The Bruins received major contributions on offense from unlikely players. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, went cold at the worst possible time.
Youre seeing the best arms and the best staffs in college baseball, Fox said. Thats the biggest factor (in offensive struggles) is teams can really, really pitch out here.
The Bruins pitching staff had a lot to do with it. Watson, a sophomore left-hander, allowed four hits in six innings, and he issued just one lone walk. Watson was the seventh consecutive left-handed pitcher to start against the Tar Heels, whose greatest offensive struggles this season have come against left-handed pitchers.
UCLAs final three pitchers, James Kaprielian, Zack Weiss and Dave Berg, allowed three hits the final three innings. In the ninth, UNC twice loaded the bases against Berg, whose 23 saves tied the single-season NCAA record.
We werent going to go down without a fight, Stubbs, UNC's senior first baseman, said. That just wasnt going to happen.
UNC second baseman Mike Zolk hit into a fielders choice that drove in one run and left runners on first and third with one out. On that play, UCLA second baseman Cody Regis appeared to be well off the bag on an out at second.
Berg then struck out Parks Jordan, UNCs No. 9 hitter, for the second out. Chaz Frank walked to load the bases again but Lassiter fell behind on a 1-2 count before the final out.
UNC received a strong outing from Emanuel, who struck out seven and allowed two runs only one of them earned in six innings. It was Emanuels best start since the ACC tournament, but Chris McCue and Tate Parrish, who entered the game in the seventh inning, both walked batters who later scored on the double that Kelley allowed.
The Tar Heels were making their sixth appearance in the past eight years in the College World Series. They left still seeking their first national championship after 10 trips to Omaha.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter