North Carolina's Cooper Criswell (l) and Brandon Martorano (r) (Mandy Sorenson)


Emotional UNC Knocks Off Oregon State

College World Series

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OMAHA, Neb. — North Carolina coach Mike Fox and his team had just beaten the postseason juggernaut that is Oregon State, but he had to find a way to fight back tears at the end of what was supposed to be a joyous press conference.

The Tar Heels began the College World Series with a complete team performance in an 8-6 win over Oregon State. The Heels made the big plays in the field, the bullpen, which has been strong throughout the postseason, rose to the occasion after righthander Gianluca Dalatri left the game in the early innings after feeling discomfort. And the offense was mighty productive against Beavers ace lefthander Luke Heimlich.

Today’s performance would be impressive under normal circumstances.

These weren’t normal circumstances.

As the Tar Heels woke up this morning, Fox and his staff received word that Zach Attianese — a promising former pitcher who recorded nine appearances as a freshman last season before transferring and ultimately signing with Florida State — had passed away. Attianese and his father, Jude, were traveling in Michigan late Friday night when they were tragically killed in a car crash. Attianese had a close bond with the UNC coaching staff, and starting catcher Brandon Martorano was one of his childhood friends.

The coaches, Martorano and other players were crushed. So, instead of waking up and approaching this morning’s team breakfast with excitement about the day ahead, Fox had to stand in front of his team and deliver the bad news: One of their friends had passed away.

“I just want to give a shoutout to Brandon Martorano because that was mighty hard to do, to go out there today, because they’ve been friends since they were kids,” Fox said. “So life is fleeting. And it was tough news for us to hear.

“We really didn’t want our team to know before the game, but we didn’t have any choice because of social media,” he continued. “But I felt like I just needed to say that because it shows you how tough my team is, but also how caring my team is. I wasn’t real sure if Brandon was going to play today.”

If the Tar Heels were emotional entering Saturday’s contest, they certainly channeled it in a positive way.

In addition to the Attianese news, the Heels had the tough chore of facing one of the nation’s best in Oregon State lefthander Luke Heimlich. Heimlich, of course, became a big story last summer when he chose to remove from himself from the team for OSU’s run to the CWS. But this go-round, Heimlich was here, on the biggest stage in college baseball and wanted to leave a lasting impression.

Oregon State lefty Luke Heimlich struggled immensely against UNC. (Mandy Sorenson)

That didn’t happen, partly because he lacked command, but also because the Tar Heels made him and the rest of the OSU team pay for their mistakes.

From the start, it seemed clear that Heimlich didn’t have his usual stuff. Heimlich typically sits in the 90-93 and up to 94-95 mph range, but it’s his ability to throw three-to-four pitches for strikes all over the zone that makes him one of the best in the business. That typical command wasn’t there Saturday.

UNC’s Kyle Datres reached base to start the game via an uncharacteristic error by OSU shortstop Cadyn Grenier. Heimlich then hit Michael Busch before he showed signs of morphing back to his usual self with a strikeout of Cody Roberts, while he escaped damage in the first inning, thanks to a Brandon Riley fly out and a strikeout of Ike Freeman.

That didn’t last.

Heimlich ran into a little trouble in the second when UNC got on the board with an RBI groundout from nine-hole hitter Ben Casparius, while the Heels struck gold in the third inning with a five-run frame knocked him out of the game. Heimlich hit two batters in the inning, while the Tar Heels tallied five hits as part of the barrage.

The Oregon State lefty exited the game with one of his worst starts of the season. He allowed six runs on four hits in 2.1 innings. The performance equaled his worst start of the season, where he allowed six runs in just 3.1 innings on the road against Arizona.

OSU head coach Pat Casey seemed at a loss for words about Heimlich’s uncharacteristic performance.

“It’s difficult because I haven’t seen that before. But he certainly didn’t have his stuff,” Casey said. “I don’t think he was nervous. I don’t know. He just couldn’t command anything, and he couldn’t get it to go where he wanted it to.

“I think it’s tough when you can’t throw the ball across the plate, and he wasn’t used to that,” he continued. “It certainly hurt as well to come out and not make the first play of the game. He just never had a rhythm and he never … he could never find it. And when you have a guy that’s an All-American and gives up six earned runs in three innings, it’s just tough.”

Heimlich’s poor performance was just the tip of the iceberg for the Beavers. In addition to his poor start and Grenier’s odd error in the first, the Beavers had breakdowns elsewhere on the field, too. First Team All-American catcher Adley Rutschman usually is outstanding behind the plate, but even he had a couple of passed balls — one of them leading to a run. And there’s also center fielder Steven Kwan, who mishandled a ball and struck out with bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning. And to cap it off, Grenier began the eighth inning with a walk, only to be picked off by Martorano, who made a strong throw and whose emotions were running high. The next hitter? Madrigal singled, but it didn’t matter. Instead of that sparking a rally, UNC reliever Cooper Criswell punched out Trevor Larnach on an 89 mph fastball before Rutschman grounded out to end the frame.

“You know, those are mistakes we typically don’t make, so it was tough for me to tell you exactly what was going on. We made some errors we shouldn’t have made and we made some base-running mistakes,” Casey said. “It all starts on the mound and defensively. We had 13 hits and we didn’t defend and we didn’t pitch, therefore we couldn’t close the gap.

“It’s pretty hard when these guys come out and play 60 games, and then they come in here, you trust the way they play,” he continued. “The game isn’t easy. I’m not certain that there’s anything they didn’t prepare for. They just didn’t play well.”

Meanwhile, the Tar Heels had a good plan against Heimlich and OSU’s pitching staff, and they got big contributions from the bullpen.

UNC’s bullpen was ushered into action in the first inning. After just four batters, Tar Heels righthander Gianluca Dalatri didn’t feel right and exited the game with an undisclosed injury. Against Heimlich and the Beavers, you’d think that was the recipe for disaster.

Not with this UNC lineup and bullpen..

“You know, it [Dalatri getting hurt and guys stepping up] kind of happened earlier in the year when he went down. And I feel like that’s our team, that’s just how we are,” UNC reliever Cooper Criswell said. “One guy goes down, the next guy steps up. And that’s how we’ve been all year. And we just pick each other up, and like he said, the bullpen, they did a great job today. Caden, I thought, he did a great job coming in, him and Joey, two freshmen coming in there and pitching big-time innings for us.”

North Carolina’s offense had a productive day. (Mandy Sorenson)

Criswell, who was expected to start Monday and actually was charting pitches early in the game, was forced into action with Dalatri’s early departure. He closed out the game with 2.1 shutout innings, but he wasn’t alone. Caden O’Brien worked 1.2 innings, Brett Daniels didn’t allow a run in 1.2 innings, hard-throwing Joey Lancellotti struck out two in 1.1 shutout innings and was up to 96-97 mph with his fastball, and Josh Hiatt worked 1.1 innings before giving way to Criswell.

Offensively, Casparius, who had been out with an injury since May 11, recorded two hits and knocked in there runs, while Ike Freeman had a three-hit day and veterans Zack Gahagan and Cody Roberts each chipped in two-hit performances.

“We have seemed to hit our offensive stride here since the NCAA tournament began, and I gotta give credit to our kids. They listened, and they’ve bought in. And they know it takes all of them to help us score those runs,” Fox said. “And it’s a little bit contagious as well. So, the box score is pretty typical of kind of what we’ve seen toward the end of our season with different guys having big games for us or stepping up.”

Even in the face of adversity, North Carolina played Saturday like a team of destiny. Everything seemed to come together yet again.

The Tar Heels have that look. They now also have someone to play for.

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