The third-seeded North Carolina baseball team, 34-25 overall, will embark on the Road to Omaha when it faces second-seeded Long Beach State, sporting a 32-24 record, Friday at 1 p.m. at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.
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The Dirtbags are no strangers to the postseason stage. Long Beach State has made 20 appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Not surprisingly, Carolina Head Coach Mike Fox expects a stern test in game one Friday. The opposing defense especially stands out.
“They’re obviously a good team – very sound fundamentally. Look at their number of errors and their fielding percentage. They pitch exceptionally well,” Coach Fox says.
Carolina and Long Beach State have never met in the postseason. In fact, the two programs have played just one game all-time, a 1992 UNC win in Chapel Hill.
But this time around, Coach Fox says the Tar Heels will be facing a mirror image of themselves out on the diamond.
“They’re very similar to us I think. They just try to manufacture runs and depend on their pitching and defense to win,” Coach Fox says.
Hitting the road come tournament time is unusual for the UNC program, but Coach Fox says it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think we can use that to our advantage. We haven’t been in this position. It is going to be quite different. When you’re hosting, playing at home, and you’re a national seed, there’s pressure on you. You’re expected to win. This is different. I hope that difference will help us,” Coach Fox says.
One might expect a low-scoring affair Friday with so much on the line and the sheer importance of not dropping into the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination format. The loser faces a daunting uphill climb the rest of the weekend against a loaded field.
Another reason to expect a pitcher’s duel is the man on the mound for the Tar Heels. Trent Thornton says he’s rested up and ready to throw.
“It feels pretty good. Every bullpen I’ve had is getting sharper and sharper. I’ve had my full week of rest coming into Friday. We’re ready to go,” Thornton says.
Overall, the bullpen is solid. But when push comes to shove, the Achilles heel for the team all season has been the run support. Coach Fox knows it, but says many members in the batting order are heating up.
“We’ve been up and down offensively. We just haven’t had everybody swinging at the level that they’re capable of, consistently. That’s where we’ve probably been a little bit better down the stretch. Landon [Lassiter] is swinging it better. Skye [Bolt] has been swinging it better. Parks [Jordan] got some big hits for us in the [ACC] Tournament. Maybe that’s a good sign for us offensively,” Coach Fox says.
History will certainly be on Carolina’s side. The Tar Heels have won their NCAA opener in 14 straight tournaments.