CHAPEL HILL Almost reflexively, East Carolina coach Billy Godwin started to answer when asked whom he was going to start against St. John’s in the early game of the Chapel Hill regional on Sunday. Then he caught himself and pointed out there was no guarantee the Pirates would face St. John’s. After all, North Carolina could lose the late game Saturday night.
It didn’t seem likely, though. The Tar Heels hadn’t lost an NCAA regional game at Boshamer Stadium since 1983, and they were sending ace Kent Emanuel to the mound, who had allowed a total of one run in his three career NCAA tournament starts. If Godwin was instinctively game-planning to face St. John’s, it’s hard to fault his pragmatism.
He would have been right until the final pitch of the game, when Danny Bethea yanked a wayward fastball by Tar Heels’ closer Michael Morin over the left-field fence for a three-run walk-off home run and 5-4 win.
“(I) just left the ball up,” Morin said, “and now we’re here.”
The Pirates, who stayed alive by eliminating Cornell earlier Saturday, won’t face St. John’s in the 1 p.m. game Sunday after all. It’ll be the Tar Heels instead, moving through the loser’s bracket in a regional at home for the first time in almost 30 years.
Emanuel did his part, giving up one earned run over eight innings, getting stronger as he went, retiring the last seven batters he faced. Nevertheless, his career ERA in NCAA play nearly doubled, to a massive 0.58. He had only thrown 102 pitches, he was at least six days away from his next start, and even Fox thought Emanuel was throwing his best at the end.
Still, Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes pulled the plug on Emanuel to bring in Morin, who despite converting 18 of 19 save opportunities this season and going 16 innings without allowing a run never looked comfortable during a 25-pitch outing to close out Friday’s win over Cornell. It was a decision they would quickly come to regret.
“We did debate whether we were going to let Kent finish,” Fox said. “Sure, we talk about it, obviously. I really think if we’d gotten another run, and this is hindsight, if it’s 5-2, I think we leave Kent out there, because I thought Kent was throwing the ball well. But we think Michael Morin is one of the best closers in the game.”
Morin gave up a double and infield single to open the bottom of the ninth, prompting a mound visit from Forbes for the second night in a row, before striking out Zach Lauricella on three straight change-ups to get the first out. His first pitch to Bethea was a change-up for a strike, so the plan was to waste a fastball low and away to give Bethea something to think about, then come back with the change-up.
Morin never got a chance to throw another change. The fastball was up and in, and Bethea turned on it. The ball sailed high to left field, disappearing beyond the fence along with the Tar Heels’ expectations for this weekend. Godwin’s too.
“I make that move every time, without question, put Michael in the game in the ninth inning,” Fox said. “We wouldn’t be playing in this regional without him.”
East Carolina has lost 14 straight against the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, but North Carolina had won 16 straight NCAA tournament games as the host team. That streak fell Saturday. The Pirates will be hoping it’s that kind of weekend, the Tar Heels will not.