UNC plates game's first run on disputable call at home
OMAHA, Neb. -- There were a lot of things that were unorthodox about how North Carolina scored its first run in the fourth inning Thursday night against NC State.
For starters, Brian Holbertson, UNC’s cleanup hitter who came into Thursday’s elimination game batting .317, reached base on a fielder’s choice -- after bunting. After Cody Stubbs walked, Skye Bolt reached on a fielder’s choice when Colin Moran, who led off the inning with its only hit, was forced out at home.
And then the fireworks began.
Shortstop Michael Russell flied out to right, Holbertson tagged and NC State right fielder Jake Fincher came up firing, throwing a strike to Brett Austin at the plate that beat Holbertson significantly. However, Austin could not apply the tag in time.
After home-plate umpire Joe Burleson made the call, a pair of Wolfpack coaches sprinted from the dugout, Austin threw his mask down and pitcher Carlos Rodon chucked his glove. Ejections were threatened, but none were issued.
NC State head coach Elliott Avent, one of the coaches who sprinted out of the dugout after the call, wasn’t satisfied with the explanation he got from Burleson.
“It was a terrible explanation,” Avent said. “Actually, I didn't really get one. The ball just beat him, for me, you know the dugout is so far from home plate. The ball just beat him so much that obviously maybe we didn't block the plate good enough. But with the rules, it says you can't block home plate.”
While Avent did say instant replay may prove Burleson’s call correct, that isn’t the point.
“That's the beauty of baseball for me,” Avent said. “Please don't ever have instant replay in baseball. That's one of the great joys still of this game and just one of the beauties.
“Golf is a pure game. This is a pure game, let's leave it alone. If he got his hand in, fine.”
For his part, Holbertson said he knew he was safe even before the umpire made the call.
“I don't think he even touched me,” Holbertson said of Austin. “I didn't feel anything on my back or anything. And I was glad that [Burleson] called me safe.
By the time all the smoke cleared and the equipment was picked up, the Tar Heels had a 1-0 lead despite being 0-for-11 for the tournament with runners in scoring position against Wolfpack ace Rodon.
UNC broke that streak of futility an inning later when Moran singled home Parks Jordan -- who was hit by a pitch. It would be Moran’s 90th RBI of the season, making Moran the first ACC player to reach 90 RBIs or more since Buster Posey had 93 for Florida State in 2008.
More importantly, Rodon, who had been dominant against the Wolfpack in their first meeting of this year’s CWS on Sunday, was sent to the showers after the fifth, a fact the Tar Heels were thrilled about.
“He's really hard to get runs off of,” Moran said of Rodon. “So we just capitalized when we were able to. But his stuff was still really good.”
How big was that first run? The Tar Heels are now 45-5 when scoring first.
“We knew a few runs might win the game,” Holbertson said. “And it kind of looked that way until the last few innings, get on top of them early just like we have been lately and get the lead and put some more pressure on that team to go up there and do more really helped us out.
Now, the Tar Heels will face 2-0 UCLA in another elimination game at 8 p.m. ET Friday. For his part, UNC head coach Mike Fox said he hasn’t decided on a starter for the game yet, but that he has it narrowed down to lefty Kent Emanuel (11-4, 3.22 ERA) and righthander Benton Moss (8-1, 3.78)