By Eddy Landreth
What occurred at Boshamer Stadium on the Carolina campus this past weekend is no great mystery.
Rankings and seeds did not matter. As shocking as it may be for Carolina fans or for followers of collegiate baseball, the best team won the regional,
St. Johnâ€™s defeated UNC, 9-5, on Sunday evening to advance to this weekâ€™s Super Regionals. Carolina defeated East Carolina, 5-3, earlier on Sunday to eliminate the Pirates and earn another shot at St. Johnâ€™s.
Carolina had gone 16-0 in the previous opening regionals in which UNC was a host. But St. Johnâ€™s came to Chapel Hill as the third seed in a four-team field and left as the clear-cut champion this time.
The players on that team really did take this regional by storm.
â€œI think St. Johnâ€™s just outplayed us,â€ UNC coach Mike Fox said.
The Red Storm did not just outplay the Tar Heels. By the end of the regional, St. Johnâ€™s led all four teams in hitting (.345), pitching (4.00 ERA) and fielding (.981) for the weekend.
Carolina finished fourth in team batting (.235), third in pitching (4.58 ERA) and third in fielding (.968).
Think about that for a moment. The tournamentâ€™s number-one seed came in third or worse in all the main team statistics, and the third seed finished first in all three.
St. Johnâ€™s played with a roster of juniors and seniors. Carolina played mostly freshmen and sophomores. The experience and toughness showed in all three of the Stormâ€™s games, especially in the two against Carolina.
UNC fought hard, as it has all season in going 46-16 and earning a sixth-seed nationally in the overall NCAA baseball tournament. St. Johnâ€™s (40-21) needed a bottom-of-the ninth three-run home run to turn this tournament on its head Saturday night and defeat Carolina â€“ which they did.
That was one of the most shocking outcomes against a Carolina team during the Fox era.
Had the Tar Heels held the lead on Saturday, St. Johnâ€™s would have had to play earlier on Sunday, and UNC starting pitcher Benton Moss would have pitched the 6 p.m. championship game, instead of beating East Carolina at 1 p.m. in the elimination game.
â€œSometimes itâ€™s just destiny,â€ St. Johnâ€™s coach Ed Blankmeyer said. â€œThe ball bounced our way this weekend.â€
For one of the few times this season, it did not bounce right for the Tar Heels. Fox says that the fact Carolina accomplished all that it did this season should be the surprise, not that St. Johnâ€™s won this weekend.
â€œIâ€™m amazed we won 46 games,â€ Fox said. â€œAnd Iâ€™ll go in there and tell our team that. Nobody knows â€¦ of everything that goes on during a season with a team, coming and going, injuries and this and that.
â€œWe had to change shortstops in the middle of the year. We had to change third basemen in the middle of the year. Iâ€™m really proud of how those guys all fought together and got us to this point.â€
If one takes a broader view of this Carolina team, the disappointment of this weekend will lessen some. Carolinaâ€™s youth speaks to a bright future for the next two seasons.
Most of the players who clung together to earn 46 wins will return, some for two more years, some for one.
â€œEvery coach will tell you that you cannot coach or teach experience,â€ Fox said. â€œYou just have to get it. Itâ€™s part of it. I think [pitcher] Luis Paula kind of grew up. If heâ€™s in another one next year, it will not be new to him.
â€œWe hope the big games weâ€™ve been in and playing in front of a lot of people and in a regional will help us down the road and help our young guys.â€
Where this team needs the most help is offensively. The Tar Heels somehow managed to score enough runs to win 46 games, but this weekend was a good example of how hard it was for this team to score against good pitching.
â€œYou have to have one good at-bat followed by another one,â€ Fox said. â€œYou canâ€™t just rely on the other team to walk you or make a mistake, make an errant throw to give you opportunities.
â€œIt gets harder,â€ Fox said. â€œThe teams are better, and they play at a higher level. We had some guys who didnâ€™t have as good a year as they had in the past. Itâ€™s part of baseball. As the season goes along, they start pressing. They realize theyâ€™re not hitting as well as they did last year.â€