They have stared down top offenses, top pitchers, and the loss of their ace for the second time this year. And ye,t this Tar Heel baseball team keeps rolling along. Tonight, they face off a team that has a great story of their own for the right to rest until Friday and play the last team standing in their bracket.
Let’s set the stage:
Mississippi State vs. #6 North Carolina
How they got here
The Tar Heels opened up festivities in Omaha against the #3 Oregon State Beavers and Luke Heimlich, arguably the best pitcher in college baseball in terms of stats. For reasons already stated, most of the baseball world was hoping Carolina could solve the pitcher much like they had solved Stetson’s Logan Gilbert the week prior. Unlike Stetson, Oregon State had a powerful hitting lineup and solid defense that Carolina would have to solve as well, which likely was the reason for Coach Mike Fox throwing Gianluca Dalatri as the starter.
Carolina wasted a two on, no out situation in the top of the first and saw Oregon State drive a run home in the bottom of the frame. More concerning, however, was the fact that Dalatri was only able to get two outs before calling to the dugout and needing to be pulled due to a dead elbow. Caden O’Brien, Carolina’s only lefty, came out and prevented any further damage, and Carolina managed to even things up in the next inning.
Converting in that inning seemed to show the Heels that Heimlich could be gotten, and the senior showed very quickly that he had no command on his curve. Once the Diamond Heels figured that out, they were able to hang a 5 spot on him in the third inning, knocking him out before the inning was done. The game became a battle of the bullpens, and Carolina was able to hang on using the combination of O’Brien, Brett Daniels, Joey Lancellotti, Josh Hiatt, and usual starter Cooper Criswell to seal the win. Oregon State actually outhit the Heels, but committed three errors that allowed Carolina to take command and force Oregon State to play from behind almost the entire game.
Mississippi State beat Washington in a decidedly different game, a pitchers’ duel that saw the score stay at 0-0 until the bottom of the ninth. Both starters went seven full, and did their job for their teams by not allowing a run to cross the plate. The Bulldogs outhit the Huskies, 10-6, but neither could scratch a run. That is, until Luke Anderson strode to the plate. With two men on, Anderson was able to get a base hit to right field earning the Bulldogs’ second walk off win of the Tournament.
If you ask the Bulldogs, their success has been because of the Rally Bananas. You’ll no doubt hear the story multiple times tonight on TV, but the short version is that when they were facing elimination against Oklahoma, a player put a banana on his head, they started to throw strikes, and they won the game. Hey, in a sport of rally caps, totem poles, and all sorts of routines thought to provide luck, it’s their thing. The fruit will likely be out in full force tonight.
Konnor Pilkington (2-6, 4.56 ERA) vs Austin Bergner (7-2, 4.28 ERA)
This is where Dalatri’s short outing really hurt the Heels as Cooper Criswell had to come in and seal the win on Saturday. Criswell was likely going to be the starter tonight, but when Josh Hiatt shut down the Beavers, Fox wasn’t going to chance OSU completing the comeback.
That said, Bergner is no slouch himself. He can gobble up innings and should be well-rested as he wasn’t needed to start in the Stetson series. He gave the Heels 5 2⁄3 against Houston to seal the trip to the Super Regional, and pitched 1⁄3 inning of scoreless relief versus the Hatters. He’s hit double digits in K’s three times, once against Florida State and once against NC State. Carolina also benefits from the extra day of rest in that every pitcher will be available out of the pen, even Criswell, who threw a team-leading 34 pitches against Oregon State, as every one of them would get three days off should they prevail.
Pilkington has been struggling this season after having a good freshman campaign. Remember in the preview that the Bulldogs started this tournament losing to Oklahoma 20-10? Pilkington was the starter that day. He went just 3 1/3, giving up five earned on six hits, and walked four. Four of those runs were in the first inning. In their Supers, he went 5 innings in his only start, only giving up two runs against Vanderbilt, but went 101 pitches. It’s fair to say that if this trend continues, Carolina will get into their bullpen, which is pretty much by committee. Six different pitchers have a save for the Bulldogs, so if Pilkington struggles expect him to be on a short...er...leash.
Carolina’s offense was on full display on Saturday, adjusting to the strong wind and beating Oregon State with a metaphorical 1,000 cuts. Only three starters are batting over .300 for the season, and yet the Tar Heels have scored six runs or more 37 times. Carolina is undefeated in those 37 games. So far in the NCAA Tournament, they’ve hit that number in five of their six games; only Houston managed to hold the Tar Heels to four runs back in the regionals (they lost anyways, of course).
The Heels’ spark plug is sophomore Michael Busch. While he went 0-4 on Saturday, he still got on base twice thanks to his team co-leading 12th and 13th hit by pitch. He’s the clear team leader in walks, second in average, leader in homers, RBI, and is eight for nine at stealing bases. Look for Carolina to try to put up a big inning early to set the tone.
The Bulldogs haven’t had a lot of trouble putting up runs in the Tournament, either. They’ve played nine games so far and have scored eight or more runs in six of them. They are 5-1 when they do, 1-2 when they don’t.
The offense has seemed to come from nowhere. MSU has four hitters going for over .300 right now, but no one is even anywhere close to double digits in home runs. The team leader in RBI, Tanner Allen, only has 44. For comparison, Busch has 63 and two other players for Carolina have more than 44. They have 480 strikeouts on the year, compared to 469 for the Heels.
The thing to fear about MSU is that they have no fear at this point. They’ve been on the brink of elimination twice in the Tournament, they have a season sweep over the #1 seed Florida, and their walk off win on Saturday has them believing it’s their year. It’s something that stats can’t account for, but Carolina can make the same argument after facing arguably some of the toughest pitching in the Tournament, and getting over six runs each time.
The stakes: Winner gets to sit until Friday. The loser plays the winner of Oregon State-Washington on Wednesday.
First pitch is scheduled for 7:00 PM on ESPN.