That the number eight rhymes with “Oregon State” is no coincidence.
Maybe Mike Fox should lobby for baseball to be seven innings. Because, clearly, eight has not been a good number for his Tar Heels in the College World Series — and for long before that. In his eighth trip to Omaha as a player and coach for Carolina, Fox’s team was sent home by eighth innings he will never forget. If it wasn’t for Oregon State, the Tar Heels could have been playing for their third NCAA title.
If you recall in 2006 and 2007, they lost in the championship series to the Beavers. After beating their old nemesis Saturday, it looked like they’d do it again Wednesday night after — you guessed it — seven innings. But in the eighth, Carolina squandered a 6-3 lead by giving up four runs to Oregon State, and then four more in the ninth for a total of eight.
Ironically, the Diamond Heels were two innings away from getting another shot at Mississippi State, which blew open Tuesday’s game by scoring eight runs in the eighth. Fox may permanently retire that number, so no one can wear it ever again. Clearly eight is unlucky for the Tar Heels.
But it was more than Ouija board numbers and bad luck that bounced UNC out of Omaha, where the weather was more like Chapel Hill early in the game. Then the rain and mist came, and the Beavers thought they were back in Corvallis. That’s where the one element the Tar Heels lacked this season came back to bite them.
Teams with sketchy pitching can’t win it all, because by the post-season, every opponent is good and can hit the leather off the ball. UNC might have been rated as the third-best overall pitching staff in the ACC this season, but had no ace as a starter and no stoppers for the eighth and ninth innings.
Carolina pitchers barely showed up in the top ten of every ACC statistical category. What that means is the Tar Heels out-hit and out-hustled most of their opponents.
Fox had a bullpen full of arms, but no one – whether freshman or senior – he could rely on to put out a fire. Caden O’Brien had shut down OSU for two-and-a-third innings in the first game, and he was doing it again through seven Wednesday night. But after O’Brien gave up two singles, Fox pulled him and the entire bullpen imploded. An otherwise great season ended shockingly.
In the end, No. 8 felt far from great.