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UNC faces a must-win rematch against Oregon State Wednesday after College World Series loss

'We just gotta flush that one'

UNC coach Mike Fox and fielder Cody Roberts talk about the Tar Heels' loss to Mississippi State in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 19, 2018.
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UNC coach Mike Fox and fielder Cody Roberts talk about the Tar Heels' loss to Mississippi State in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

North Carolina's baseball team knew that pitching and defense would be the key winning in the College World Series.

So far in the NCAA tournament, UNC had played good defense. And with the exception of a 19-11 win over Houston in the Super Regional round, it had pitched well too.

But on Tuesday, in the second and eighth innings, its defense and pitching let it down as Mississippi State buried UNC 12-2.

It is the first time UNC (44-19) has lost in seven games since the NCAA tournament started. Because of the loss, it will play Oregon State in a rematch on Wednesday. UNC won the first matchup 8-6. Winner of that game will play on Friday, while the loser will go home.

"We're happy to get an opportunity to play again," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "They're competitors so they're going to want to come out and play better, which we'll have to tomorrow."

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North Carolina right fielder Cody Roberts catches a fly ball hit by Mississippi State's Jake Mangum (15) in the eighth inning in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Mississippi State won 12-2. Nati Harnik AP

The Bulldogs have made an improbable run in the tournament so far. They were a bubble team that might not have made it had they not swept No. 1 Florida in the final series of the regular season. They did not host a regional, yet they are still standing with a chance to advance to the College World Series final if it wins on Friday.

UNC and Mississippi State (39-27) were supposed to play on Monday night. But a rain and lightning delay pushed the game to the following day.

UNC pitched Austin Bergner, who had started only once this postseason. Cooper Criswell, who is 2-0 with a 0.68 ERA in the three appearances in the tournament, would have been the starter. But he was forced to save the game against Oregon State when the Tar Heels got in trouble.

But Bergner pitched well for the most part. He pitched seven innings and struck out eight batters. He gave up only five hits. It was the defense in the second inning and one bad pitch that hurt him and the Tar Heels.

It started when UNC third baseman Kyle Datres committed an error at third base. First baseman Michael Busch also missed a ground ball. The bases were loaded with two outs, and a 1-2 count, when Mississippi State freshman Jordan Westburg hit a rocket over the left field wall. After trailing by one run, Mississippi State went up 4-1.

"I thought Austin made one bad pitch," Fox said. "One bad pitch out of 98. You can really say he made one bad pitch and they made us pay for it."

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Mississippi State's Elijah MacNamee (40) slides back safely to first as North Carolina first baseman Michael Busch (15) makes the tag in the second inning of an NCAA College World Series baseball game in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Nati Harnik AP

UNC brought the score to 4-2 with a run in the bottom of the seventh inning, but Mississippi State added eight more runs in the top of the eighth. Westburg, who batted ninth, had seven RBI's for the game.

The Bulldogs had six hits in the inning, but the meltdown started because of its poor defense.

UNC finished the game with three errors. There were a few plays that could have been called errors but weren't.

UNC also had trouble scoring, which was uncharacteristic of the Tar Heels in recent games. It had scored 41 runs in its last four games. The opportunities were there on Tuesday, but through the first five innings, the Tar Heels left six runners on base.

Credit Mississippi State left-handed pitcher Konnor Pilkington, who won his third game of the season. Whenever he found himself in trouble, he made the right pitch to get out of the inning.

Pilkington pitched six innings, and gave up only six hits and two runs. The Bulldogs' bullpen picked up where he left off.

UNC could not say the same. The 12 runs UNC gave up were tied for the most it had given up all season.

"We hit some balls right at people and just weren't able to produce runs," Datres said. "But we're not going anywhere. We'll be back tomorrow."

Fox said Criswell will start on Wednesday.

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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