North Carolina stays alive with win
OMAHA, Neb. -- Mired in a 6-for-34 stretch of postseason batting, North Carolina freshman Skye Bolt strode to the plate in the fifth inning Tuesday at TD Ameritrade Park, worked the count full and drilled a double into the left-field corner.
Two innings later, his single with two outs scored Colin Moran to provide the Tar Heels' final margin of victory, 4-2 over LSU, in a Bracket 2 elimination game at the College World Series.
Bolt and Carolina lived to see another day in Omaha.
Resiliency: It's the story of their season, especially of late.
"It comes from within," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "We have some tough, resilient leaders who rally our team. When you have that, you don't want to give in."
The top seed in the 64-team tournament field, North Carolina won its school-record 58th game two days after a bitter 8-1 defeat to ACC rival North Carolina State.
Resiliency is not 58-11. That's talent.
But don't misjudge Fox's club. The Tar Heels made it this far on guts. They're mentally tough and battle-tested, as much so or more than his five other teams that played in the CWS over the past eight years, including runner-up finishers to Oregon State in 2006 and 2007.
How else to explain this?
• Last month in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, North Carolina beat NC State 2-1 in 18 innings, fighting past Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon. North Carolina came back the next day to beat Virginia Tech in the championship game.
• A week later, after a loss to upstart Florida Atlantic in the Chapel Hill Regional, UNC blew a four-run lead in the ninth inning of the winner-take-all game. But it scored two in the bottom half to tie it and three runs to tie it again in the 12th, and walked off a winner in 13 innings.
• In the super regional against South Carolina, the Tar Heels recovered from an 8-0 loss to overcome a two-run deficit late in the decisive contest and get back to the CWS.
North Carolina is the only team in the country this year to have not lost consecutive games.
"To be honest with you, I think it's the [youth]," said Bolt, the right fielder. "We've got a team that's essentially really young."
Maybe they're too young to understand the potential impact of a tough loss.
Bolt credits senior first baseman Cody Stubbs as the steadying force.
"He is probably the hardest-working baseball player I've ever played with," Bolt said. "He's kind of the spearhead of our mentality. The kid never gives up. You mix that with the ambition of us young guys, and that's what I'm talking about."
To break from his postseason slump, Bolt stopped trying to drive every pitch Tuesday. He reverted to what got him an every-day spot in the lineup, even after he missed 17 games in midseason with a broken foot. Bolt did what he knew best.
The same could be said for North Carolina as a whole. It just won.
"This team has always taken losing personally," Fox said. "It's awkward to say, but when some teams lose, it's, 'Oh, we lost.' When we lose, it makes them mad, really."
In the games after their 11 losses this season, the Tar Heels have outscored the opposition 85-30.
That anger of which Fox speaks was on display early against LSU. Catcher Brian Holberton homered with two outs in the bottom of the first inning to put North Carolina on top 2-0.
"We've done it all year with our backs against the wall," Holberton said. "We play better that way. This team just doesn't want to lose. We want to keep going."
Starting pitcher Trent Thornton came up big with seven innings of work. Others contributed in small ways, such as shortstop Michael Russell, whose sliding stab and throw of a Christian Ibarra grounder to open the sixth inning halted LSU after it appeared to gain momentum.
Reliever Chris McCue held the Tigers to one hit over the final two innings.
"I refused not to finish that game," McCue said.
For three weeks now, North Carolina has refused to let its season end, despite more than one close call. It needs a win Thursday over NC State, which lost 2-1 to UCLA on Tuesday night, then two wins over the Bruins to reach the best-of-three finals next week.
A chance remains here for the ACC to end its 58-year drought without a national title in baseball.
Who better to snap the skid than a band of tough, talented Tar Heels who responded to every defeat for an entire season with nothing short of a championship-caliber answer?