OMAHA, NE- Whether due to the heat, a UNC offense that took a mature, unrelenting approach at the plate, or that they fell victim to a “Freaky Friday”- style body-switching incident, the Oregon State team that took the field on Saturday afternoon did not look much of anything like the Oregon State team that we’ve seen all season long, and in particular, during their dominant run through the postseason.
If you could count on anything with the Beavers, it seemed, you could count on Luke Heimlich getting them deep into the game and the defense playing mostly error-free baseball.
Neither of those things occurred in their 8-6 loss to North Carolina, however.
Heimlich didn’t look comfortable from the start, but he was able to work around two baserunners in the first to hold the Tar Heels scoreless. In the second, the first two batters reached after working the count full, and a run came home two batters later on a Ben Casparius RBI groundout. Again, though, Heimlich was able to wiggle out of further trouble, and you had to figure that it was only a matter of time before he settled in.
But that never happened, as Heimlich couldn’t escape the third inning, and by the time it was all said and done, UNC had hung five more runs on him and jumped out to a 6-1 lead.
Heimlich’s final line shows 2.1 innings pitched, allowing four hits and six earned runs with one walk, three hit batters, and two strikeouts, his toughest start since allowing six runs on nine hits in 3.1 innings against Arizona on April 7th. It’s also only his second loss of the season. The other was that start against Arizona. Those types of struggles OSU head coach Pat Casey hadn’t really seen before from his ace.
“It’s difficult because I haven’t seen that before,” Casey said. “But he certainly didn’t have his stuff. I don’t think he was nervous. I don’t know. He just couldn’t command anything. He couldn’t get it to where he wanted…He just never had a rhythm and he could never find it.”
All of those runs against Heimlich might have been earned, but sloppy defensive play certainly didn’t help.
An uncharacteristic Cadyn Grenier error on a routine grounder off the bat of Kyle Datres started the game. Although Datres was later stranded, it made for a bit longer inning for Heimlich. On a scorching-hot day like Saturday, that’s no small detail. Then, in the third, after Heimlich had been lifted, a ball that rolled under the glove of Steven Kwan on a run-scoring single to center allowed a second run to score on the play.
For the game, OSU committed three errors, hit four batters, and uncorked a wild pitch. In a close game where the OSU offense put the team in a position to pull off a comeback win, things like that make a difference. In fact, Casey thinks it was the difference in the ballgame.
“It all starts from the mound and defending,” Casey said. “We had 13 hits, but we didn’t defend and we didn’t pitch and therefore we couldn’t close the gap.”
It wasn’t a vintage Oregon State performance by any stretch, but North Carolina deserves plenty of credit, for a number of reasons.
First, their mature, advanced approaches at the plate made Heimlich work. If he wasn’t going to be able to get them out with good pitches, they weren’t going to help him. Even if Heimlich had been able to continue fighting his way through jams, his elevated pitch count was such that he likely wasn’t going to get to the later innings anyway. And that hitting approach has really been a pattern for them this postseason. Last weekend in the super regional, they put up seven runs against Stetson in games started by first-round pick Logan Gilbert and Jack Perkins, who enjoyed an incredible season in his own right. Prior to that, in going 3-0 in a home regional, they scored 34 runs in three games, including 19 in the regional clincher against Houston.
“We seem to have hit our offensive stride here since the NCAA tournament began,” North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. “And got to give credit to our kids. They listened. And they’ve bought in. And they know it takes all of them to help us score those runs. And it is a little bit contagious as well. So the box score is pretty typical of kids of what we’ve seen down toward the end of our season with just different guys having big games for us or stepping up.”
They also did a nice job of piecing things together in the bullpen after staring pitcher Gianluca Dalatri was lifted in the first inning. When Mike Fox and the UNC trainer visited Dalatri in the first, he said that he just didn’t feel right, and given his injury history this season (he’s missed all but six weeks this season due to injury), the UNC staff understandably weren’t taking any chances.
OSU got to Caden O’Brien for three runs in 1.2 innings, but Brett Daniels threw 1.2 scoreless innings, Joey Lancellotti chipped in with 1.1 scoreless frames, and after OSU mounted something of a comeback against Josh Hiatt, plating two runs off of him in 1.1 innings, Cooper Criswell came on and shut things down, tosing 2.1 scoreless innings to close it out.
Crucially, all of those guys should also be available when UNC takes the field again on Monday, as no one threw more than 34 pitches. If the Tar Heels have to play a bullpen game again for one reason or another, they’ll have the pieces to do so.
North Carolina also showed toughness in winning a ballgame with heavy hearts. News broke Saturday that former UNC pitcher Zach Attianese and his father were killed in a car accident. Attianese had transferred to a junior college after the 2017 season and was a Florida State commit this time around, but he’s clearly still considered part of the Tar Heels family by so many around the team, and Fox made that clear in his press conference.
“My team played with a pretty heavy heart today. Zach was a great kid, left-handed pitcher out of Old Bridge, New Jersey and (catcher) Brandon Martorano’s best friend…So I want to, first of all, just let the Attianese family know how much the Carolina baseball program is thinking of them. And I just want to give a shoutout to Brandon Martorano because it was mighty hard for him to do, to go out there, because they’ve been friends ever since they were kids.”
Sure, OSU didn’t play their game, and that had a huge bearing on the outcome. But UNC played just hours after learning of heart-breaking news about a friend and teammate, and not only did they play, but they beat the pitcher who has been perhaps the very best in college baseball over the last two years. And that’s pretty impressive.