OMAHA, Neb. — Home runs are few and far between at the College World Series these days, which made Brian Holberton’s first-inning shot all the more important for North Carolina.
Holberton staked freshman starter Trent Thornton to a two-run lead before he even took the mound Tuesday, and No. 1 national seed Carolina went on to beat LSU 4-2 in an elimination game.
“We certainly are happy to have survived this one,” Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. “I thought the home run by Brian was really crucial for us, just kind of let the air out a little bit and let us play with a lead, something we seemed to haven’t done in a while.”
The Tar Heels (58-11) play North Carolina State or UCLA in another elimination game Thursday. The No. 4-seeded Tigers (57-11) went 0-2 in their first CWS appearance since winning the 2009 national title.
“We expected to come out here and play better than we did,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Even though we didn’t play great, we lost a one-run game and a two-run game. We were in position to win the games. It wasn’t like we came out here and got blown out. We were right there and just couldn’t come through with the play here or hit here or a pitch there, and it stings a lot.”
Carolina, which lost 8-1 to North Carolina State in its CWS opener, staved off elimination for the third time in the NCAA tournament and remains the only team in the country to not lose back-to-back games this season. The Tar Heels are outscoring opponents 85-30 after losses, and their 58 wins are a school record.
Thornton (12-1) pitched a strong seven innings in his first start since March 27. The 6-foot, 170-pound right-hander worked around two singles and three walks to hold the Tigers scoreless until the fifth and escaped trouble in the seventh thanks to a double play.
“It’s always good to get a lead early in the game,” Thornton said. “When you get a lead early, you need to focus and know that if you just don’t give up any runs, you’ll win the game.”
Leading 4-2, Thornton walked Christian Ibarra to start the eighth and was relieved by Chris McCue, who hit Sean McMullen with a 2-2 pitch to load the bases with two out.
That brought up Mark Laird, who had a double and four singles in his first eight CWS at-bats. But McCue got Laird to fly out to short left field and keep it a two-run game. McCue worked a perfect ninth for his second save after getting pulled with one out in the ninth of the super regional-clincing win over South Carolina.
“I was kind of frustrated that I didn’t get the job done that time,” McCue said. “Obviously, it was good that we won. But this time I was just really making sure that I made good pitches and that I was going to get outs. I refused to not finish the game.”
LSU scored only three runs in two CWS games. National freshman of the year Alex Bregman, who was batting a team-leading .374, was hitless in eight at-bats. Raph Rhymes, batting .337, was 0 for 9 in Omaha and stranded eight base runners against the Tar Heels. Christian Ibarra, batting .311, finished the season hitless in his last 22 at-bats.
Thornton, who has served in every capacity on the Carolina pitching staff, got the call over available weekend starters Hobbs Johnson and Benton Moss, both of whom have struggled of late. Thornton came in as the Tar Heels’ best pitcher in the postseason, having allowed two runs in 21 1-3 innings.
He threw a career-high 114 pitches in his seven-plus innings, allowing two runs on nine hits and four walks.
LSU starter Cody Glenn (7-3), making his first appearance since starting the opening game of the SEC tournament May 22, last just two innings. He allowed three runs on five hits — the biggest one being Holberton’s homer — before turning things over to Brent Bonvillain.
Mainieri said the Tar Heels’ homer was especially devastating because he thought Glenn had struck out Holberton on the previous pitch, but umpire Steve Mattingly called it a ball.
Holberton then sent Glenn’s 3-2 offering over the wall in right center for only the second homer in seven CWS games.
“It goes to show the whole team doesn’t want to give up,” Holberton said. “We’ve done it all year with our backs against the wall. We just come out fighting. I think we play better that way. We just want to keep going.”