GAINESVILLE, Fla. North Carolina fell victim to Long Beach State’s aggressive game plan on the bases, and now the Tar Heels are in danger of an early exit out of the NCAA baseball tournament.
The 49ers (33-24) chased Tar Heels starter Trent Thornton after 3 1/3 innings and scored all six of their runs in a fourth-inning outburst of a 6-1 victory in the opening game of the Gainesville region.
North Carolina (34-26) fell into the losers’ bracket of the double-elimination region and will play the loser of Florida-College of Charleston at 1 p.m. Saturday. Scheduled starter Benton Moss (4-2, 3.33) will try to extend the Tar Heels’ season.
“It’s going to be an uphill climb from here,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “But we’re just going to worry about Saturday and trying to win one. We have some seniors that want to keep on playing and we’re going to do our best to win this next game.”
Thornton cruised through the first three innings but ran into trouble in the bottom of the fourth when he struggled to find the strike zone.
Garrett Hampson led off the inning with an infield single and gave Long Beach State a 1-0 lead when he advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Richard Prigatano. After Prigatano scored on a hit by Johnny Bekakis for a 2-0 lead, Thornton began to unravel.
Thornton walked designated hitter Zach Belanger to load the bases for catcher Eric Hutting, who ripped a two-run single to left field that ended Thornton’s day after 77 pitches. Colton Vaughn greeted reliever Trevor Kelley with a two-run double to left center to make it 6-0.
“I thought Trent was lights out after the first three innings,” Fox said. “And the guy leads off the fourth with a grounder that should have been an out. After that he got going fast and started losing control of his pitches. The faster he went the quicker the inning got away from him.”
Thornton was charged with six earned runs along with two wild pitches, both in the fourth inning, and three walks.
“They had some good at-bats that inning,” said UNC third baseman Landon Lassiter, who went 2-for-3 and drove in the Tar Heels’ only run. “We know they ran the bases aggressively and that inning they had a good approach from almost every hitter in their lineup.”
Long Beach State starter Andrew Rohrbach cruised and kept a Tar Heels runner from reaching second until Wood Myers advanced on Lassiter’s single in the top of the seventh.
“He just pounded the strike zone and went right after us,” Lassiter said. “Unfortunately, we came out a little bit short.”
The Tar Heels finally chased Rohrback with one out in the ninth when pinch runner Adam Pate scored on Lassiter’s single. Rohrbach yielded seven hits over the 8 1/3 innings with two strikeouts on just 94 pitches.
“He just doesn’t give you much of a chance to breathe in the batter’s box,” Fox said. “I thought we hit some balls very hard and they made plays behind him. We battled until the end but it was tough to come back from that inning.”
The Tar Heels made some nice plays late in the game, including a highlight-worthy diving catch by Parks Jordan in foul territory. Designated hitter Tom Zengel, who also had two hits, expects to carry that momentum into Saturday afternoon.
“I think we’re going to come out and play our best game of the season,” he said.
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