Luke DeCock

DeCock: Tight Tar Heels on verge of early elimination

This isn’t like North Carolina. That’s what Chaz Frank said. That’s what Mike Fox said. The Tar Heels don’t recognize themselves, the way they’re playing right now. They do recognize they’re a game away from early elimination. Again.

They look tight. They look like they’re laboring under the expectations they created through their regular-season dominance, as well as those imposed upon them by the program’s tradition and recent history. They get runners on base, then sputter. They get six no-hit innings from Hobbs Johnson, then give up a three-run home run to lose the game.

Florida Atlantic’s Ricky Santiago’s blast to left was good enough for a 3-2 win over North Carolina on Sunday after the Tar Heels left 15 runners on base, including the potential tying run in the ninth inning.

“That’s not like us,” North Carolina center fielder Chaz Frank said. “We have two of the top RBI guys in the nation. That’s very different, very unlike us to leave guys out there that much. It happened. That’s baseball. Things happen.”

Even in their two wins in this regional, the Tar Heels haven’t looked good. All those years they moved on to super regionals and the College World Series, they tore through the regionals they hosted. They never left any doubt.

Let a little doubt creep in, though, and anything is possible. That’s how St. John’s upset North Carolina here last year. That’s how Florida Atlantic has a shot to do the same thing Monday night.

Two nights after North Carolina nearly ran itself out of a 6-3 win over Canisius, the Tar Heels actually did run themselves out of a chance to beat Florida Atlantic. Cody Stubbs singled to start the ninth, then was caught stealing second, the first out of the inning.

A night after the Tar Heels gave up five late runs in an 8-5 win over Towson, failing to pad a 5-0 lead, they gave up three runs in the seventh to Florida Atlantic after leading 2-0. Johnson’s control was wavering, so Trevor Kelley came in and gave up the homer to Santiago, the Owls’ first hit of the night.

“I’m glad they got two more,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “It would have been really frustrating to look at that box score with only one hit.”

The one player North Carolina should be able to count on is completely out of sorts, Colin Moran a slumping 3-for-13 in this regional with an error Sunday. Skye Bolt hasn’t looked the same since returning from a broken foot. Stubbs is holding his own, but even he popped foul with two runners on base in the first inning. All told, North Carolina has stranded 31 runners in three games in this regional.

Moran is the key. He’s carried the North Carolina offense all season. No player in the country has driven in more runs than the third baseman, a lock to be a first-round pick in Thursday’s draft. Yet he has a single RBI in the regional, and when he came up with the bases loaded Sunday, he hit a weak dribbler to the pitcher that turned into a double play.

“It’s unlike Colin,” Fox said. “I haven’t seen Colin swing at first pitches five times, maybe 10, all year long, and now he’s in a stretch. That just tells you he’s a little anxious, trying to do too much. … I can’t fault him for trying too hard. He’ll be better tomorrow.”

Moran is not the only one who needs to be better Monday. The Tar Heels haven’t lost consecutive games all season, but they don’t look dominant right now. They look vulnerable. That isn’t like them.