North Carolina coach Mike Fox said he wouldn’t need to say much to his team after its 11-7 loss to Auburn on Saturday. He said they would forget it and be ready for Sunday’s Game 2.
He was right.
Facing elimination, the Tar Heels pitched nine innings of shutout baseball on Sunday afternoon and beat the Tigers 2-0 in the second game of the super regional at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill. With the win, the Tar Heels forced a third game at 1 p.m. on Monday.
The winner will advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The Tar Heels, seeking their 12th College World Series appearance, lost the first game of the best-of-three series on Saturday after their bullpen gave up nine runs in the final two innings.
The bullpen’s struggles on Saturday came as a surprise because it had been UNC’s best unit in the postseason. Prior to that game, UNC’s bullpen had a 1.93 ERA, a 6-0 record and two saves during the first seven games of the postseason.
On Sunday, the bullpen was better.
Redshirt freshman Austin Love, who gave up two runs in one inning on Saturday, was nearly flawless on Sunday. He retired the first eight batters he faced and kept the Tigers off balance.
“Definitely knowing that your season is on the line, I think gives you a lot of extra motivation knowing that it’s win or go home,” Love said. “So I think that really helped our team.”
Of the 50 pitches Love threw in relief, 41 were strikes. He struck out six batters in 4 2/3 innings. Love’s performance was big for UNC because it saved the arms of UNC’s other relievers for Monday.
“I knew Austin was going to be good today, I didn’t know he was going to be that good,” UNC coach Mike Fox said.
The Tar Heels have now won eight of their last nine games dating back to the first game of the ACC tournament.
Love wasn’t the only pitcher who was good. While starting pitcher Austin Bergner struggled with his command at times, he got outs when he needed it most.
In the first inning, with bases loaded, he struck out Auburn’s Rankin Woley to end the inning. In the fourth, after surrendering a walk and a hit with two outs, he got Auburn’s Kason Howell to line out to short stop.
He was replaced in the top of the fifth inning after giving up two hits.
The Tar Heels spotted Bergner a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning after third baseman Ike Freeman hit a two-run single, which scored Michael Busch and Aaron Sabato. Freeman finished the game 1-for-5 with the two RBIs.
Freshman Danny Serretti led the Tar Heels with two hits and a walk. He was 2-for-4 for the game.
For the most part, the Tar Heels were patient at the plate. They drew nine walks, and picked up eight hits. But outside of the first inning, they did not take advantage of Auburn’s mistakes. They left 14 runners on base, and at least one in each of the first eight innings.
“Our pitchers picked us up and that’s what we needed,” Freeman said.
Still, the two-run lead in the first inning was enough for a win. Love, who was credited with the win, retired 13 of the 15 batters he faced.
“This guy right here,” Fox said motioning to Love, “out of the bullpen, was just phenomenal.”