Putkonen's pitching, Cardinals' error helps UNC stave off elimination

Originally Published: June 19, 2007
By Curt McKeever | Special to ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- North Carolina catcher Tim Federowicz had the ugly numbers memorized long before his team attempted to stave off elimination at the College World Series on Tuesday.

How many pitchers had the Tar Heels used while getting smacked by Rice 14-4 on Sunday?

A Series record eight.

How many runs had the slugging Louisville Cardinals, their opponent in Tuesday's elimination game at the College World Series, produced during their first two appearances in Rosenblatt Stadium?

Twenty-two.

Thus, Federowicz's thought after Carolina scored three runs in the top of the second inning Tuesday to grab a 3-1 lead might have seemed silly.

"I knew we had that game won," he said.

And with each delivery right-handed sophomore Luke Putkonen brought to the plate, Federowicz's vibe grew stronger.

Putkonen, you see, was in the kind of zone that had made him a third-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers and led to 13 victories in 14 previous career decisions.

Even when Logan Johnson got his barrel on a wicked sinker and lined a first-inning home run just over the wall in left field, Federowicz was sure that the kid from Marietta, Ga., was in no danger of reverting back to his 9.00 earned-run average of his first two games in the NCAA Tournament.

Nope, 3-1, as it turned out, indeed represented 'Game over time' for Putkonen and his teammates.

While the Tar Heels were limited to a season-low three hits, their soft-spoken starter went seven innings to help silence a team that while slugging seven homers and building a .402 batting average had become just the fifth club in the 61-year history of the CWS to score at least 10 runs in its first two games.

The performance had Carolina coach Mike Fox reaching for the clichéd "good pitching is going to beat good hitting any day of the week." But even Fox admitted that this performance, which helped his team notch a school-record 55th win this season, was particularly special.

When he came to Rosenblatt on Tuesday morning and saw the flags blowing in from center field, Fox clenched his fists, looked to the sky and exclaimed "Yes!"

Then, Johnson, Louisville's second hitter, hit his Series record-tying fourth homer and 17th of the season.

"I was like, 'Oh my, here we go!' " Fox admitted. "But that was an unusual pitch and an unusual swing. I mean, you've got to give that kid credit. He's right on top of the plate and he just inside-outed one and kept it low enough to where the wind didn't knock it down."

Nevertheless, Fox and his assistants kept checking with Federowicz to make sure that Putkonen hadn't come unglued by seeing a quality pitch leave the park.

The answer he gave them went like this:

"I knew he was going to go long, and that was going to be one of their only hits," Federowicz said. "He was throwing pretty hard. He was hitting his spots with his fastball and really controlling his breaking stuff."

Putkonen -- who struck out seven, walked one and gave up three hits before turning things over to Rob Wooten in the eighth inning -- acknowledged that his curveball was likely the best he's had all season.

Luke Putkonen
AP Photo/Nati HarnikLuke Putkonen scattered three hits and seven strikeouts over seven innings.
Considering his earlier struggles in the NCAA Tournament, and the fact that he'd missed two April starts while questioning whether his right elbow really was healed two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Putkonen's outing was one Fox and Tar Heels fans shouldn't soon forget.

Especially after All-America closer Andrew Carignan came in to strike out cleanup batter Isaiah Howes with two on to end the eighth, then retired the Cardinals in order to end the game.

"All the doctors are saying 'You're fine.' But after you're coming off Tommy John, it comes back into your head, 'Oh, there's something wrong," Fox said. "We kept saying 'Luke, you've already pitched one year removed from this. You're still throwing in the 90s.' But he had to work through that a little bit."

If they were concerned about that, the 2006 national runner-up Tar Heels never showed it.

"Our players have a lot of confidence in Luke. They've faced him. They know what kind of stuff he's got," Fox said. "They're like, 'Just go out there and throw like you do in some scrimmages, we've got a chance.'

"It obviously came at a great time. You can play the wind and ballpark into it if you want to, but he still was pretty good today."

Louisville's Colby Wark tried to match Putkonen, but had a hard-luck error turn into two unearned runs that decided the outcome.

In a 1-1 game with runners at first and third, Garrett Gore hit a grounder to third baseman Chris Dominguez, who's throw sailed past first, allowing both Kyle Seager and Seth Williams, both of whom had singled, to score.

With Putkonen in command, North Carolina then improved to 26-0 this season when holding an opponent to fewer than three runs to earn a rematch with Rice on Wednesday (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET).

"This game, it's crazy," Fox said. "You can go from where you score a lot of runs to none, because it's all controlled by that guy on the mound.

"I said before that we all have a great deal of confidence in Luke, and I never considered throwing anybody other than him, because when he's on he's got as good of stuff as anybody."

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.

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