It turned out the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament would have to fight though all kinds of trouble — deficits, mistakes, bullpen-taxing games — to reach that goal.
Colin Moran hit an RBI triple in a three-run sixth inning and staff ace Kent Emanuel, the former Woodstock High School star, picked up his first career save by getting the final two outs to help UNC beat South Carolina 5-4 on Tuesday.
By winning the decisive third game of the weather-delayed super regional series, the Tar Heels (57-10) secured their sixth trip to Omaha in eight seasons.
It also capped a stressful two weekends of NCAA play, from a 13-inning comeback win against Florida Atlantic in the final game of the Chapel Hill Regional to the pair of one-run wins against the Gamecocks (43-20).
“It doesn’t really matter how you get there,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “Baseball’s a tough game, you never know how it’s going to go. At the end of the day, we’re going, so that’s the most important thing.”
Yet Fox has said all those moments have made a tough team even tougher — which explains how the Tar Heels managed to regroup after falling behind on a morale-killing two-run mistake in the fifth.
The Tar Heels went ahead for good in the sixth, then Emanuel — who had thrown 238 pitches in three NCAA tournament appearances — came on for a pair of one-pitch outs that sent the UNC players spilling out of the dugout and onto the field to celebrate.
“I think we just have a lot of confidence late in games,” Moran said. “It kind of builds over time and it’s hard not to be confident, no matter how much you’re down after how much we’ve come back and how many times.”
Reliever Trent Thornton (11-1) earned the win, allowing one earned run over 4 2/3 innings as the Tar Heels tied a program record with their 57th victory.
North Carolina will see a familiar opponent in Omaha — the Tar Heels will open CWS play Sunday against instate and Atlantic Coast Conference rival North Carolina State. The last time the teams met, UNC won an 18-inning marathon on the way to the ACC tournament title over Memorial Day weekend.
South Carolina had won the national championship in 2010 and 2011, then finished second last year. The Gamecocks were back within a win of Omaha under first-year coach Chad Holbrook, a former UNC player who had also worked as an assistant under Fox.
UNC won Saturday’s series opener 6-5, then South Carolina won Sunday’s elimination game 8-0. But on a mistake-filled Tuesday for both teams, the Gamecocks will be left to wonder what-if after the sixth inning.
After Moran’s triple scored Landon Lassiter to cut the deficit to 4-3, the Gamecocks made a throwing error that brought home Moran to tie it. A few batters later, reliever Tyler Webb entered with the bases loaded and walked Woodstock native Skye Bolt to give UNC the 5-4 lead.
South Carolina got the tying runner on base in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings but couldn’t score.
“There’s not too much difference between the two teams,” Holbrook said. “And ultimately we didn’t do enough to win the two games that they won. It’ll haunt me for a long time, but I’m also awfully proud of our players.”
Brian Holberton’s two-run homer in the second had given UNC a 2-1 lead and Thornton — who came on in the third for starter Benton Moss — had held down the Gamecocks into the fifth.
But with two outs, UNC center fielder Chaz Frank dropped a routine fly ball that allowed the Gamecocks to score a pair of unearned runs for a 3-2 lead.
South Carolina got Tanner English’s RBI double to make it 4-2, but Moran’s big hit re-energized a home crowd that had gone quiet after Frank’s drop.
The teams combined for five errors. South Carolina finished with three in each of the super regional games.
“In postseason play, when you’re playing a great team, every little mistake is magnified,” Holbrook said. “We made our fair share this weekend and it’s disappointing. We lost two games and both games were there for us to win.”
Reliever Adam Westmoreland (7-4) took the loss, allowing two hits and three runs in 3 1/3 innings.
UNC’s win closed a series delayed two days by weather. Friday’s opener was postponed due to heavy rain from Tropical Storm Andrea, then Monday’s third game was postponed due to rain and thunderstorms.