Commentary

Deep pitching staff helps North Carolina extend its stay

Originally Published: June 20, 2008
By Curt McKeever | Special to ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Alex White had enough on his hands just trying to deal with LSU at the College World Series on Friday night.

The Tigers, who on Tuesday had produced their ninth final-at-bat victory of the season to eliminate Rice from the event, had the Rosenblatt Stadium crowd rocking while threatening to pull off another one in a 3-3 game that had reached the bottom of the eighth inning.

The scene was serious enough that the right-handed sophomore White, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, had been called to make just the fourth relief appearance of his career and first since March 15, after the Tar Heels' rubber-armed closer Rob Wooten made a fielding error to let speedy leadoff hitter Jared Mitchell reach base.

One out later, Mitchell stole second, and then White walked Micah Gibbs to bring the nation's leading home run hitter, Matt Clark, to the plate.

Next thing White knew, a naked fan was running his way from the outfield.

"That was the biggest part of the game at that point and he kept his cool," Tar Heels reliever Colin Bates said of White, grinning. "He was pointing him out and was [saying], 'All right, no big deal.'"

Actually, it wasn't that easy for White because he walked Clark. But then he did something that Carolina fans have come to expect from just about any of the pitchers on a staff that has compiled the nation's lowest ERA. He got an infield pop-up and then a fielder's-choice grounder to get out of the inning.

And in the ninth, Tar Heels junior catcher Tim Federowicz put an end to LSU's magical late-season run by swatting the first grand slam at the Series since 2001, producing a 7-3 victory in a game that took two days to complete.

While Federowicz made for an easy sentimental pick to cast as the hero for a night, Carolina would not be positioned to have a chance at making its third straight championship series if not for its talented arms.

[+] EnlargeAlex White
Julie Scheidegger/US PresswireAlex White pitched two scoreless innings to seal the win for UNC.

"I think tonight you saw probably why we've led the nation in earned run average," Mike Fox said after his club earned a rematch against Fresno State on Saturday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). "We ran our five best guys out there. It would've really been a shame if we'd have lost only giving up four hits."

The last time LSU recorded so few hits came against Mississippi on April 12. Since then, the Tigers had gone 28-5-1.

"We ran out of miracles," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "They've got a great pitching staff. Their kids were really good. We didn't have a lot of opportunities."

Carolina, trying to duplicate the feat of last year's team that made it to the championship series by winning three straight elimination games, ran right-handed freshman Matt Harvey out first.

Harvey was the highest-drafted high school player in 2007 to attend college (he was a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels) and a Freshman All-American with a 7-2 record and 2.59 ERA. He threw his first pitch in this game 24 hours after his teammates had taken a 2-0 lead only to have lightning and rain force a postponement until Friday night.

And he likely would have lasted more than two innings then, had lightning and rain not forced another delay for one hour and 27 minutes.

But Carolina had no trouble putting the game in the hands of another right-handed Freshman All-American, Bates.

Bates (6-1 with a 2.83 ERA in 26 relief appearances) is a completely different story.

He missed last season recovering from a November 2006 surgery in which a blood clot was removed from his right shoulder. Since he wasn't ready to give up pitching, he also had another difficult procedure that involved removing his top rib and grafting a vein from his right thigh to his shoulder.

Bates was unable to move for several days after the operation and couldn't throw for seven months. And yet he still came to Omaha and cheered from the stands as the Tar Heels finished second.

On Friday, following his normal protocol of pitching with a piece of that extracted rib in his right back pocket, he threw 2 2/3 shutout innings.

"I threw my first warm-up pitch and sailed it and missed the catcher," Bates said. "But after that I thought I settled down and it was fun.

[+] EnlargeTim Federowicz
AP Photo/Ted KirkTim Federowicz hit the first grand slam at the College World Series since 2001.

"It's definitely a dream come true being out here. The thing that [reliever Brian] Moran told me was 'Don't worry about it. Half the fans aren't even paying attention. They're chanting who sucks in the outfield and throwing beach balls. Don't worry about it and go right after them.' That's what I tried to do."

Moran, a sophomore lefty with a 1-1 record and 2.45 ERA in 38 appearances, would follow Bates to the mound and eventually give up Clark's 28th homer of the season, a two-run shot to right field in the sixth inning.

But he also bailed Bates out in the fifth by striking out Mitchell with a runner at second.

And so when the right-handed senior Wooten (6-2, 5 saves, 1.77 ERA) went out to start the seventh, the Tar Heels, knowing that White (who'd already won a game here) was available, figured they'd need just a tiny opening to pull off another late-inning victory.

When White escaped the wild eighth, the Heels' No. 9 hitter, Ryan Graepel -- inserted into the starting lineup late in the season because of his defense at shortstop -- kept the zaniness going. Facing Louis Coleman, the Tigers' unbeaten lefty, he doubled to the wall in right-center.

Coleman intentionally walked Dustin Ackley before throwing a wild pitch on his first toss to pinch-hitter Mark Fleury, but then fanned Fleury before intentionally walking Tim Fedroff.

On a 1-1 delivery, Federowicz, who'd been a strikeout victim of Coleman's to end the seventh with Ackley on second, pulled a hanging slider halfway up the left-field bleachers.

"I didn't really catch Coleman's reaction after he struck me out [in the seventh], but I'm sure it was pretty good because I put a pretty bad swing on that one," Federowicz said.

Federowicz's ninth-inning connection represented the first grand slam at the College World Series since Georgia's David Coffey did it in 2001. Since then, 280 players had come to the plate with the bases loaded and not hit a homer.

"My team's got a lot of heart," Fox said. "We didn't do a lot of things right, but we finally hit a mistake."

With their pitching, that's usually all it takes for the Heels to get what they want.

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.