CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Veteran South Carolina players had seen it so many times before, a magnified postseason mistake that opened a bumpy path to victory.
So it probably hasn’t settled in yet, the sight of North Carolina celebrating at Boshamer Stadium immediately after a 5-4 victory Tuesday in Game 3 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional.
No. 1 NCAA tournament seed or not, the Tar Heels should have folded after The Drop.
The script was copyrighted in June of 2010 during the first of South Carolina’s three straight trips to the College World Series. It called for the Gamecocks to make fresh Omaha plans.
“We definitely got a little excited down there in the bullpen thinking maybe that’s the break we needed,” South Carolina senior pitcher Tyler Webb said.
Webb had a great viewing angle in the fifth inning as Tar Heels center fielder Chaz Frank failed to catch a catchable fly ball off the bat of Joey Pankake. It should have ended the Gamecocks’ half of the inning, but the two-run gaffe gave South Carolina a 3-2 lead.
Right on cue.
No more home-field edge. The crowd went silent except for the jubilant bunch behind the Gamecocks’ dugout.
But these Tar Heels are not Oklahoma or Clemson, Virginia or Arkansas, UCLA or Florida.
They are a high-wire act billed as a baseball team, poised and unfazed no matter the adversity or presence of Cocky The Mascot.
Pankake’s bunt try
One Carolina beat the other at its own game, winning 6-5 in Game 1 and by the thinnest of margins again in Game 3.
“At the same time, we know North Carolina is a great team and they’re not going to go away quietly,” Webb said of the Frank error. “We knew we still had our work cut out for us. We still had to play good baseball for those last four or five innings.”
The feeling was the same in the dugout.
“Yeah, you get excited, but we’ve watched them on film,” said senior pitcher Adam Westmoreland, who took over on the mound in the third inning. “You know they’re never going to quit. You have to go out and compete.”
The classic matchup deteriorated at times into a battle of miscues.
The Gamecocks pushed most of the right buttons during their national championship runs in 2010 and 2011 and in a return trip to Omaha in 2012.
But on Tuesday, Pankake (one sacrifice all season) failed to get a bunt down from the No. 3 spot in the batting order with two runners on base and no outs in a scoreless first inning.
Kyle Martin, a better defensive first baseman than designated hitter LB Dantzler, made a throwing error that allowed the tying run to score in the sixth.
Later in the inning, an intentional walk contributed to Webb inheriting a bases-loaded situation. The Gamecocks’ closer walked Parks Jordan on a borderline 3-2 pitch to force home the winning run.
Patent pending for the 57-10 Tar Heels.
Holbrook: ‘It’s baseball’
North Carolina beat Clemson in 14 innings and N.C. State in 18 innings during the ACC tournament and survived a 13-inning Chapel Hill Regional championship game against Florida Atlantic.
Third baseman Colin Moran, the Miami Marlins’ first-round draft pick, approached Frank after the error.
“I just told him to relax, it’s not a big deal, that we’ll come back anyway,” Moran said.
The Gamecocks sang such sustaining words the previous three Junes.
Amid moist eyes and consoling, they loaded the big garnet and black bus parked aside Boshamer Stadium.
Luck was the residue of Carolina design.
Now it’s the other Carolina, bound for a College World Series opener against, of all teams, N.C. State.
“It’s baseball,” Chad Holbrook said at the last press conference of his first season as head coach. “We keep remembering we’re coaching college kids, amateur kids who are trying so hard to do everything they can to help their team win.”
Which is what makes three consecutive trips to the College World Series and more than a cumulative month spent in Omaha so special.
Oklahoma and Clemson, Virginia and Arkansas, UCLA and Florida … They were all trying hard, too.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff