Flack's homer powers North Carolina's offense
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Several minutes before the first pitch in Sunday night's winner-take-all game between South Carolina and North Carolina in the NCAA Chapel Hill Super Regional, clouds of black smoke were billowing from the roof of a truck that powered the temporary lights at Boshamer Stadium.
The last thing the Tar Heels needed was another power outage.
After all, they'd been mired in a power shortage of their own for nearly three weeks. North Carolina, which led the ACC in homers with 64 in the regular season, hadn't hit one in nearly 400 at-bats.
The Tar Heels' last long ball had come when left fielder Reid Fronk hit a leadoff homer at Maryland in the last regular-season game May 19. After that, North Carolina didn't hit any homers in four games at the ACC tournament last month, nor during three games last weekend in an NCAA regional here.
So if chicks truly do dig the long ball, North Carolina's team hotel must have felt like a monastery for the past month.
But there's plenty to like about the Tar Heels now. Third baseman Chad Flack, mired in a hitting slump for much of the season, belted a towering two-run homer over the scoreboard in center field, putting the Heels ahead 6-4 in the seventh inning in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 2,925.
North Carolina added a run on freshman Dustin Ackley's RBI single in the eighth and two more in the ninth, and closer Andrew Carignan blanked the Gamecocks over the final four innings for a 9-4 victory in the last game played at this 35-year-old ballpark.
The Tar Heels, the national runner-up to Oregon State a year ago, return to the College World Series for the second year in a row. North Carolina plays Mississippi State on Friday at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., where it will need at least five victories over 10 days to win the school's first national championship in baseball.
And it was Flack's blast that provided the spark to get the Heels there.
"Everybody's talked about Chad Flack and the year he's had for us," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. "But there's probably not a bigger swing of the bat than that home run."
Flack had gone nearly a month without smacking a home run and was hitting barely .250 entering the super regional. A year ago, Flack put together one of the most impressive offensive performances in school history. He broke a North Carolina single-season record with 112 hits and ranked among the ACC's top 10 in batting average, runs, home runs and RBIs in 2006.
Finally, the junior from Forest City, N.C., overcame four months of disappointment with one swing of the bat against South Carolina.
"When that ball hit the net out there, I said, 'Well, it's about time!'" Fox said. "It couldn't have come at a better time."
The final game in the Battle of the Carolinas was tied 4-4 going into the seventh inning. Catcher Tim Federowicz led off with a single, then shortstop Josh Horton popped out to left field. With one out, Flack belted reliever Will Atwood's changeup over the scoreboard for his seventh homer of the season.
"He left a changeup over the plate," Flack said. "I was just lucky to make good contact with it. I was looking for a base hit right there to keep the rally going and luckily got a hold of it a little better."
Fox said he wasn't surprised Flack was the hitter who provided his team's first homer in a long, long time.
"He's kept his attitude up the whole time, " the coach said. "Mentally, I'm sure it hurt him not to be doing the things he did last year, but he just hung in there. He just didn't let the game beat him down. I know it was killing him inside, but he never showed it."
Once this season started, the Tar Heels never showed the disappointment of losing the national championship a year ago, either. They were perhaps four outs away from winning the national title until Oregon State scored the go-ahead run on a throwing error with two outs in the eighth inning of its 3-2 victory.
"We wanted to be back there," Carignan said. "I don't know if anybody knows how bad we wanted to go back."
Flack wanted to get back to Omaha as much as anyone at North Carolina -- he flew out with two runners on for the final out of the loss to Oregon State.
"This is what we've worked for all year long," Flack said.
The game that got North Carolina back to Omaha will long be remembered as the last one played at Boshamer Stadium. A few days from now, about the same time the Tar Heels load an airplane to fly to the College World Series, construction workers will begin tearing down the stadium as part of a $17 million renovation.
It has been a good home for the Heels. North Carolina had a pair of last at-bat victories in the opening-round series of the NCAA Tournament, then beat the Gamecocks twice after coming from behind. In Friday night's opening game of the super regional, South Carolina led 6-0 after Robbie Grinestaff's pinch-hit grand slam in the sixth. But UNC rallied with three runs in the bottom of the sixth and six more in the seventh to win 9-6.
In Saturday's game, the Gamecocks led 8-2 in the fourth before the Heels rallied for three runs. But then the skies opened up and a severe thunderstorm delayed play for more than two hours. The game finally was suspended, and it resumed Sunday afternoon.
The Tar Heels scored a run in their first at-bats in the eighth, but left a pair of runners in scoring position and never mounted another attack. South Carolina won 8-6, forcing the deciding third game about four hours later.
The Gamecocks led 4-1 in Sunday's winner-takes-all game until the Heels tied the score with three runs in the sixth. Then they went ahead for good on Flack's blast.
"To come from behind, it's just a great way to send out Boshamer Stadium," Fox said. "It's kind of profound and prophetic that we play the last game at that old stadium and we get one of the biggest wins in the program's history."
The chance for an even bigger victory is waiting for them in Omaha again.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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