Bulldogs back on their heels|[06/16/07]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 16, 2007

OMAHA, Neb. – While the sun was shining, everything was right in Mississippi State’s world.

The Bulldogs were hammering North Carolina’s pitching, starter Justin Pigott was doing well enough to keep them ahead, and it looked again like all of the moves Ron Polk had made over the last two weeks were still turning to gold.

Then, as the shadows crept in and the sky started to grow dark, it all started to unravel.

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State couldn’t hit anything anymore, the jams Pigott had worked out of became full-fledged rallies, and Polk’s magic wasn’t working. By the time darkness had fallen completely on Omaha, the Bulldogs were on the brink of elimination in the College World Series and smarting from a loss that seemed unlikely just a couple hours before.

North Carolina overcame an early four-run deficit with two runs in the third inning and six more in the sixth, and went on to beat Mississippi State 8-5 in the opening round of the College World Series.

Mississippi State (38-21) will now face Louisville and former Ole Miss assistant Dan McDonnell in an elimination game Sunday afternoon. The 1 p.m. game will be televised by ESPN.

North Carolina, meanwhile, continued its strange run through the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels (54-13) entered the regionals as a No. 3 national seed, but have had to come from behind in each of their last five tournament wins.

On Sunday night, North Carolina will play Rice – another team that knows a thing or two about comebacks – in a winners’ bracket game. Rice overcame deficits of 5-0 and 10-4 to beat Louisville 15-10 on Friday afternoon.

&#8220I was concerned. It’s hard not to be. But this is a special group,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said of the early deficit against Mississippi State. &#8220At some point, it’s going to come back to get us. I’m not sure when it is, and hopefully we’re not going to find out.”

Chad Flack went 3-for-4 for North Carolina, while Dustin Ackley and Benji Johnson each drove in two runs. Russ Sneed was 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs for MSU, but also committed a crucial error on a potential double play ball that triggered North Carolina’s big sixth inning.

Easley was a teammate of North Carolina’s starting pitcher, Robert Woodard, with the Chatham (Mass.) A’s of the Cape Cod League last summer. Easley gave his teammates a scouting report on Woodard that helped the Bulldogs solve the right-hander’s herky-jerky delivery.

It certainly looked like the Bulldogs knew what was coming. They shelled Woodard for seven hits and four runs in only 1 2/3 innings. State started the second inning with four straight hits, including a two-run double by Russ Sneed, and made it 4-0 when Brandon Turner delivered an RBI single to left.

Woodard left after giving up a two-out double to Easley, making it the shortest start of the pitcher’s career. Woodard, a senior, had never gone less than three innings in a start before, and had lasted at least into the fifth in 16 previous starts this season.

On Friday, he faced just 12 batters, 11 of whom put the ball in play. With the exception of a sacrifice bunt by Jeffrey Rea, all of the balls were hit hard. Two of the Bulldogs’ first-inning outs came on fly balls to the warning track in center.

&#8220They’re a good offensive team and he missed a couple of 0-2 pitches that he was trying to waste. He left them out over the plate,” Fox said.

State’s big second inning started innocently enough, with a leadoff single by Brian LaNinfa. Joseph McCaskill then hit a sinking liner to right that North Carolina’s Tim Fedroff dove for and missed, allowing the ball to roll all the way to the fence for a double.

LaNinfa held up between first and second to see if the ball would be caught and only made it to third. It didn’t matter. Sneed smashed a double to left-center to score both runners and put the Bulldogs ahead 2-0.

Jet Butler followed with a single, and Sneed scored on Connor Powers’ sacrifice fly. After Rea’s sacrifice bunt, Turner came through with a two-out, RBI single to cap the rally.

After Easley’s double, Adam Warren relieved Woodard. Warren (11-0) not only escaped the jam without further damage, he shut the Bulldogs down for the next four innings. Warren allowed three hits, one walk and struck out four in 4 1/3 scoreless innings.

That gave the Tar Heels time to regroup and, after a few futile attempts, they finally broke through.

Pigott danced around trouble throughout his stint on the mound, using two double plays and a pickoff throw from Easley to escape three potential jams.

North Carolina did score two runs in the fourth on RBI singles by Flack and Johnson to cut it to 4-2, but didn’t really get to Pigott until the sixth.

A hit batter, single and error brought in a run, and Johnson tied it at 4 with an RBI double to left-center. Johnson’s double chased Pigott, and his replacement John Lalor fared no better.

Lalor walked the first batter he faced and hit the next one, bringing in the go-ahead run. Tim Fedroff followed with a sacrifice fly and Ackley delivered a two-run single to left to put North Carolina ahead 8-4. Lalor was relieved by Ricky Bowen, who finally escaped the nightmarish inning by coaxing a flyout from Josh Horton.

By the time the dust settled, North Carolina had scored six runs, sent 11 men to the plate and had come from behind to take the lead for the seventh time in seven NCAA Tournament games. In two regional games, the Tar Heels had to come from behind twice.

&#8220Big innings will kill you when you have a good pitching staff you’re trying to fend off. We make a play, we win the ballgame,” Polk said. &#8220Big innings are good. Their big innings are bad.”

Mississippi State’s Mitch Moreland cut it to 8-5 in the seventh with a monstrous home run over the center field fence. But it and a single by LaNinfa were the only hits the Bulldogs got in three innings.

North Carolina’s bullpen threw 7 1/3 innings in all, allowing just five hits and one run – on Moreland’s homer. After Warren’s stint, Rob Woote threw two innings of two-hit ball, and Andrew Carignan struck out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth to record his 16th save.

&#8220I talked to Mike (Fox) after the game and he said I like your ballclub. I said I like your bullpen,” Polk said.