UNC Wilmington baseball season ends with loss to LSU

Luke Dunlap bent at the waist halfway between first and second unable – or unwilling – to believe his rotten luck. The UNCW senior’s shot had seemed destined for the right-center field gap. It was the run-scoring breakthrough the Seahawks had been eagerly anticipating.

Until it wasn’t.

With a Superman dive, LSU’s Andrew Stevenson turned a sure double into a double play more than worthy of the standing ovation that followed from the Alex Box Stadium faithful. That fourth-inning SportsCenter highlight sucked the wind out of the Seahawks and summed up their experience here with the Tigers.

UNCW played the national No. 2 seed tight again Monday. It just couldn’t find the offense, falling 2-0 in the championship at this NCAA Regional. The Seahawks’ bats went silent at the wrong time, to be sure. LSU – with outstanding pitching and sometimes-spectacular defense – had a lot to do with it.

“We competed as hard as we can compete today,” coach Mark Scalf said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any holes.”

UNCW (41-18) would have had to beat LSU twice Monday to advance to its first Super Regional. The Tigers (51-10) avoided a winner-take-all nightcap to earn a date with Louisiana-Lafayette.

LSU plated two unearned runs in the second and advanced on the strength of their second shutout of UNCW in three days. During the regular season, the Seahawks didn’t score less than two runs in any game.

Jared Poche’ did the honors this time, ceding only five hits in 8 2/3 innings. The quick-working lefty struck out eight.

“Our objective today was to try to slow him down,” said Zach Shields, who led the Seahawks with two hits. “We didn’t, so he got in a rhythm.”

UNCW only put more than one runner on base once. Poche’ ended that first-and-third threat, getting Casey Golden’s fly out to end the third. The UNCW center fielder had a bid for a game-tying home run die on the warning track in the eighth, too.

Poche’ needed help to finish it. He retired the first two men in the ninth before Corey Dick’s double chased him. Reliever Parker Bugg struck out pinch hitter Andy Austin with the crowd standing again.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Dick said. “I think as a team we stayed in it really well. ... It just wasn’t going our way.”

UNCW got overpowered by Alex Lange in Saturday’s 2-0 loss to the Tigers. Scalf thought his team swung the bat better this time but ended up with the same fate.

LSU’s defense had a lot to do with that. Stevenson’s gem wasn’t the only hard hit ball that found a fielder. The Tigers committed only one error in the two games.

Afterward, LSU coach Paul Mainieri praised the Seahawks for issuing such a strong regional test.

“To shut that team down two games in a row, between our pitching and our defense, it was really amazing to see,” Mainieri said.

UNCW’s pitching gave it a chance Monday. Justin Crump, Whitman Barnes and Jared Gesell hadn’t pitched on this stage before, but they stood up to a powerful lineup.

LSU scored its only runs off Crump in the second. The inning should have been over, but Dick couldn’t handle a two-out grounder at first.

After a balk, Chris Chinea’s double inside third base easily scored Stevenson. Jake Fraley followed with an RBI single. The Tigers didn’t need any more.

UNCW finished the regional at 2-2. It had no trouble dispatching Tulane twice, but LSU provided a different challenge thanks to a stable of pro-caliber arms and enough fans wearing purple and gold to fill an 11,000-seat stadium. The Tigers looked like a team capable of contending for its seventh national title. That fact wasn’t lost on the Seahawks.

“We’re right there where we want to be,” said Dunlap, who finished his college career by earning a spot on the all-regional team. “Just an at-bat here, a pitch there and we’re in a Super Regional. It’s headed in the right direction.”