MSU falls to Tar Heels

Published 10:14 pm Saturday, June 16, 2007

North Carolina is fast becoming expert at comebacks.

The Tar Heels spotted Mississippi State a four-run lead Friday night before cobbling together a six-run sixth inning to win 8-5 in the College World Series.

North Carolina has had to rally for five of its six wins in the NCAA tournament — a trend coach Mike Fox has found perturbing yet pleasing.

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“I’m not sure how long we’re going to be able to keep doing that,” Fox said. “It seems to be our M.O. It’s going to come back and get us here one of these days. But we’ll enjoy it for now.”

North Carolina (54-13) will play Sunday against Rice (55-12), which beat Louisville 15-10 in the day’s first game and Mississippi State (38-21) will meet Louisville (46-23) in an elimination game.

The Tar Heels, 2006 CWS runners-up were in position to come from behind largely because of the steadying influence of reliever Adam Warren (11-0).

A starter during the regular season, Warren turned in the longest relief performance of his career after Robert Woodard got roughed up. Warren, who came on in the second, allowed three hits while holding the Bulldogs scoreless over 4 1-3 innings.

In regionals, the Tar Heels trailed in the ninth before beating East Carolina and Western Carolina. In their super regional against South Carolina, they scored six runs to erase a three-run deficit in the seventh inning to win the opener 9-6. They climbed out of a 4-1 hole with a three-run sixth inning on their way to a 9-4 victory in the deciding game.

So when Mississippi State went up 4-0 in the second inning, calm prevailed in the North Carolina dugout.

“We have a pretty mature team this year, especially with the experience of the College World Series last year,” said Benji Johnson, whose RBI double tied it at 4 in the sixth. “We have learned how to always have confidence throughout the game.”

The Tar Heels have chipped away at opponents rather than relying on the long ball. They have just one home run in their last 11 games.

“When you get down, you can’t start swinging at the fences,” Chad Flack said. “You have to put some base hits together and gradually creep back.”

There was nothing flashy about Friday’s comeback, which came on the strength of four hits, two hit batters, a walk and an error.

The Tar Heels, who entered the sixth down 4-2, sent 11 batters to the plate against MSU starter Justin Pigott (7-7) and two relievers. A fielding error by third baseman Russ Sneed allowed the first run to score. After Johnson tied it, John Lalor hit Reid Fronk with a pitch with the bases loaded to force in the go-ahead run.

Tim Federoff’s sacrifice fly and Dustin Ackley’s two-run single gave North Carolina a four-run lead.

“Big innings will kill you when you have a good pitching staff that you’re trying to fend off,” Bulldogs coach Ron Polk said.

Things might not have spun out of control for the Bulldogs if Sneed had been able to handle the hard, two-bounce grounder Seth Williams sent his way.

“Make that play, and we maybe win the ballgame,” Polk said.

Warren pitched for the first time since May 23 — and the first time as a reliever since February.

“He’s very prepared, and he comes out every day and does his business,” Fox said. “He didn’t get down that he wasn’t pitching in the postseason. All of a sudden, he’s on the big stage for us.”

Warren said he didn’t expect to get the call so early in the game, if at all.

“I definitely had some adrenaline pumping, and it’s exciting to be out there again helping our team win,” he said.

Rob Wooten and star closer Andrew Carignan combined to allow only one hit after Mitch Moreland homered off Wooten in the seventh. Carignan, who worked a perfect ninth, earned his third save of the tournament and 16th of the season.

Mississippi State, trying for its first win over North Carolina in four NCAA tournament games since 1989, chased Woodard in the second inning. The Tar Heels’ career wins leader went just 1 2-3 innings, the shortest outing in 51 career starts.

Sneed’s two-run double highlighted Mississippi State’s four-run second inning. Woodard left after facing 12 batters and allowing seven hits.

It was the second straight poor start for Woodard in the CWS. Last year he lasted just three innings, giving up four runs on six hits, in an 11-7 loss to Oregon State in Game 2 of the championship series.

Mississippi State’s Pigott, who has two wins in the national tournament, gave up eight hits and six runs, four earned, in 5 1-3 innings.

“He pitched his heart out,” Polk said. “Our bullpen didn’t do a good job after the error. It seemed like everything from that point fell off the boat, let’s say, and we had a hard time keeping the ship afloat.”