If you talk to any baseball coach about what it takes to win on a consistent basis, they are bound to mention timely hitting in the first three sentences.
But timely hits just weren’t something that North Carolina could come up with in a College World Series elimination game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left nine runners on base in the 5-1 loss that ended their fifth trip to Omaha in the last six years.
“We had a couple of opportunities, but I thought [Vanderbilt’s Taylor] Hill pitched really well against us,” North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. “[He had a] really good night. Had a sinker ball out there with the wind blowing out like it was, we had a lot of groundballs especially early.”
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In the fifth inning, the Tar Heels squandered their biggest scoring opportunity of the game as junior catcher Jacob Stallings came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs. Stallings had doubled in his first two plate appearances against Vanderbilt pitcher Taylor Hill, but the right-hander finally found a way to get the Tar Heels’ lone hot hitter to sit down, striking him out to end the inning.
“You’re down four and you have the bases loaded and you’re thinking to yourself one swing of the bat, ball in the gap and we’re right back in the game and we get the momentum in our dugout,” Fox said. “We were in that situation several times while we were out here, and it just didn’t happen for us.”
“I got a first pitch slider, and it was the best pitch of the at-bat to hit, and I just missed it,” Stallings said. “You know, Taylor really kind of bumped up during that at-bat. His stuff was a lot better just that whole at-bat than it has been in my previous times.”
Hill’s strikeout of Stallings seemed to put an exclamation point on North Carolina’s slew of missed opportunities this week.
The Tar Heels left a total 34 runners on base in three CWS contests, batting .179 with runners on base, and a mere .175 with runners in scoring position.
“We left a lot of people on base out here for three games, but a lot of that has to do with the other team, and we were facing some pretty good arms as well,” Fox said. “So it is what it is. It didn’t happen for us, and after that we didn’t muster up a whole lot.”
North Carolina had come to Omaha red hot at the plate, batting .324 in their first five NCAA postseason games. But with only four hits against the Commodores tonight, the Tar Heels ended their stay in Omaha with a dismal .240 batting average in the CWS.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to their pitchers,” Fox said. “Our kids were up there and that’s what they’re trying to do. But it’s a one on one battle. Sometimes the pitcher wins, sometimes the hitter wins. That’s probably what will be written about.”
It was a bittersweet ending for the Tar Heels, who ended the season with a 51-16 record, surpassing expectations that did not even have them listed in preseason Top 25 polls.
“You know, we weren’t a very good team last year, and then to turn around like this and have such a great year with 50 wins,” Stallings said. “I mean, it’s a testament to our leadership. Obviously, we were happy to get here, but once we were here I think we wish we would have played a little better.”