CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Like any successful young player, Skye Bolt listened. His North Carolina teammate, Landon Lassiter, had just lined out Saturday afternoon in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Tar Heels’ NCAA tournament super regional against South Carolina tied.
As he returned to the dugout, Lassiter told Bolt that USC closer Tyler Webb would try to attack him with an inside fastball, his most reliable pitch. Two batters later, after Webb intentionally walked Colin Moran with two outs, Bolt walked to the plate with Lassiter’s advice still ringing in his ears.
Runners stood on first and second base, courtesy of Parks Jordan’s leadoff single. Bolt, a freshman, fell behind 0-2 against Webb, then stayed alive by fouling off two straight pitches.
Webb had been stunningly efficient in these spots. Entering Saturday, he had appeared in 17 career NCAA tournament games, allowing two runs in 25 innings. But Bolt persisted, and kept trying to shorten his swing in order to handle Webb’s inside heat.
“I wasn’t going to let him throw it by me,” Bolt said later.
Bolt made good on his intentions, ending a game in which USC so often couldn’t, by grounding a single between first and second, to score Jordan and give the Tar Heels a 6-5 win that puts them a victory away from the College World Series.
If the Gamecocks (42-19) can’t beat North Carolina, the tournament’s top overall seed, at 1 p.m. today and again Monday, they will fall just short of their school-record fourth straight trip to Omaha. The Tar Heels (56-9) haven’t lost back-to-back games all year.
It would be short-sighted to pin USC’s loss — just its fifth in 38 tournament games since 2010 — on Webb’s rare stumble in the ninth. Fielding errors and lack of timely hitting doomed USC just as much, if not more, throughout the game.
“The game was there for us to win,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “Sometimes you won’t have opportunities against (North Carolina). Today we had them. When you don’t execute and you don’t capitalize on the opportunities you have in this setting against a team like that, you’re not going to win. It came back to get us.”
The errors will sting the most, because USC’s bats were far from inefficient Saturday. The Tar Heels tied the game at two in the first inning when left fielder Graham Saiko dropped a routine fly ball that would have ended the inning, but instead allowed a run to score. In the third, North Carolina cut USC’s lead to 4-3 when Cody Stubbs doubled with two outs, and Moran scored from first because right fielder Connor Bright missed the cut-off man.
South Carolina stayed in the game because it got 15 hits, including seven and four runs off starter Kent Emanuel, a third-round Major League Baseball draft pick. Emanuel lasted just 21/3 innings. USC’s leadoff man reached base in seven of nine innings — five singles, a double and a Joey Pankake home run that put USC up 4-2 in the third. But the Gamecocks left 12 men on base, four more than their season average, and were 3 for 17 with runners in scoring position.
“At the plate, that wasn’t the issue today,” Holbrook said. “We swung the bats very well. (But) I look at the five runs and I’m thinking we should have had seven or eight.”
In the third inning, they had runners on second and third with one out. The runners remained there, because Connor Bright and Kyle Martin hit ground-outs to the infield’s left side, which kept the lead at 4-2. In the eighth, after Chase Vergason’s run-scoring double tied the game at five, USC again had men on second and third with one out, then the bases loaded with two outs, following a Pankake strikeout and LB Dantzler intentional walk. They were left loaded, because Grayson Greiner swung at Trent Thornton’s first pitch and popped out to centerfield.
“I got a pitch I wanted,” Greiner said. “The guy had a really good slider and I was sitting on it. It was a little down, and I got it a little bit off the end of the bat, got a little under it. I’d swing at that again if it was there.”
For Greiner, the slider gives and the slider takes away. USC’s 5-3 win last month at Mississippi State came courtesy of Greiner’s two-run homer in the 10th — on a first-pitch slider that he was looking for. That win bolstered the Gamecocks’ resume and helped them host a regional, which they swept in three games — the 19th time in 21 home tournament rounds that they’ve advanced. On the road, they’ve advanced just three times in 18 tries.
Today, they get one more opportunity to change that. Grasp it, and their thrills of these past four NCAA tournaments grow yet again. Let it slip, and they stay East this summer.