LSU, North Carolina clash in unanticipated showdown

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU's JaCoby Jones watches the flight of the ball hit to right field for the final out of the 9th inning at the College World Series Sunday, June 16, 2013, in Omaha, Neb. LSU lost 2-1.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU's JaCoby Jones watches the flight of the ball hit to right field for the final out of the 9th inning at the College World Series Sunday, June 16, 2013, in Omaha, Neb. LSU lost 2-1.

OMAHA, Neb. — The LSU and North Carolina baseball teams have several things in common, but playing each other this early in an elimination game at the College World Series didn’t figure to be one of them.

Nonetheless, here they are: The top-ranked Tigers (57-10) and the top-seeded Tar Heels (57-11) will play at 2 p.m. Tuesday at TD Ameritrade Park. The loser will go home without having won a game. The winner will survive but still face the challenge of winning three more games in a row to reach the championship series.

“What a matchup,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said before practice Tuesday. “You don’t see number one versus number one very often.”

Both teams are national seeds, and they have the most wins of anyone in the field.

And both are regular visitors to Omaha. The Tigers are here for the 16th time and were last here four years ago, when they won their sixth national championship. The Tar Heels have been here 10 times, including six trips in the past eight years.

“Maybe this is the way it was supposed to work out,” LSU first baseman Mason Katz said. “Everybody wanted to see it, and here it is.”

Both teams were limited to five hits in their opening losses. UNC fell 8-1 to N.C. State as Wolfpack left-hander Carlos Rodon was dominant. LSU lost 2-1 to UCLA as Bruins right-hander Adam Plutko and two relievers were in command.

The Tigers contributed to their own demise with two errors that led to unearned runs, including shortstop Alex Bregman’s fielding error on a two-out ground ball that allowed the decisive run to score in the eighth inning.

“I’ve got to make that play,” Bregman said. “I want that same ball hit to me in that same situation.”

The Tar Heels have not lost consecutive games this season, and the Tigers have just once — when South Carolina prevailed 4-2 on April 27 and 4-0 the next day to give LSU its only series loss of the season.

UNC has been on the brink before. In a winner-take-all finale of the Chapel Hill Regional, it battled Florida Atlantic for 13 innings before advancing with a wild 12-11 victory.

The Tar Heels took a 6-2 lead into the top of the ninth and allowed six runs before rallying for two in the bottom half to force extra innings. They fell behind by three in the top of the 13th before scoring four in the bottom half.

In the Chapel Hill Super Regional, UNC and South Carolina went the distance, and the finale was played two days later than scheduled because of bad weather. The Tar Heels won that game 5-4.

“Throughout the year, we’ve kind of played better with our backs against the wall,” UNC catcher/outfielder Brian Holberton said. “Coming out here the first game, maybe (we were) a little tight. Now, moving on, we know what we have to do. It’s win or go home.”

It’s the same deal for LSU, which overcame a loss to Arkansas in the second game of the Southeastern Conference tournament to win three straight and claim the title. The stakes weren’t nearly as high then, of course, but Katz said it still is useful experience.

“We’ve done it before where we lost and had to rattle off a few wins,” said Katz, whose fourth-inning homer produced the Tigers’ only run against UCLA. “It’s a great reference for us to know that we can do it again.”

Bregman said the Tigers were “a little shocked” after losing the first game, but they “will be ready to go (Tuesday).”

The Tar Heels have played 88 consecutive games without losing two in a row, which last happened in April 2012 against Georgia Tech and UNC-Greensboro.

“This team played with a lot of fight the whole year,” outfielder Chaz Frank said. “Obviously it’s important to win the first one, and you want to win the first one and it helps you a lot. But we’ll come back and fight just as hard. And we’re going to come back and win the next game.”

Katz said LSU was taking the same approach to this elimination game as it has taken all season long in compiling the best record in school history.

“We’ve only lost 10 games, so there’s really no reason to change anything and try to give a pump-up speech,” Katz said. “I think everybody is as fired up as you can be.

“Everybody knows that every day is potentially our last game, so there’s no need for me or anybody else to try and get anybody else fired up because, if they’re not fired up, they really shouldn’t be playing this game.”