Story courtesy of Cornell Athletic Communications
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Cornell senior centerfielder Brian Billigen hit his 20th career home run, shortstop Marshall Yanzick made two miraculous defensive plays, and the baseball team outhit the sixth-ranked team in the country. But the efforts weren't enough to secure a major upset, and the Big Red lost 7-4 to host North Carolina at the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional on Friday.
Fourth-seeded Cornell (31-16-1) now falls into the elimination side of the bracket, needing a victory at 1 p.m. Saturday over second-seeded East Carolina to keep its historic season alive.
Making its second NCAA appearance in the program's 143-year history, the Big Red held its own against the powerhouse Tar Heels. Despite falling in a 5-0 hole after four innings, Cornell fought back to close its deficit to 5-3 in the sixth. Billigen hit a two-run home run, his sixth of the season, then Kevin Tatum drove in Brandon Lee to score the third run of the frame. The Big Red stayed close to the end, bringing the tying run to plate three times in the ninth inning before finally being closed out by North Carolina. Cornell had 13 hits compared to UNC's 11, with both teams leaving 12 runners on base.
"I was pleased with the effort our guys gave today. We hung with them offensively," said Bill Walkenbach, the Ted Thoren Head Coach of Baseball. "I thought our pitchers did a good job keeping them off balance. If we make a few more plays, I think the game is a little closer and maybe we can get out in the end."
Cornell went down 1-2-3 in the first inning, then Billigen set the team's feisty tone by making a diving catch on Chaz Frank's fly ball to center for the first out. Starting pitcher Rick Marks then induced a pair of groundouts around a base hit to get out of the inning, with Yanzick making a strong throw from deep in the hole for the third out.
Lee had the Big Red's first hit with a two-out single through the right side of the infield in the top of the second, but he was left on base. He finished a 3-for-4 day with two runs scored.
UNC (45-14) immediately countered and got on the board with a run in the second. The Tar Heels loaded the bases with no out after Brian Holberton drew a leadoff walk and Cody Stubbs singled. Michael Russell then laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners, but he was allowed to reach on a fielding error.
That set the stage for Parks Jordan, who blooped a ball down the third baseline that looked like trouble right off the bat, but Yanzick made the long run and laid out to make the diving catch for the first out. Adam Griffin followed with a ground ball to short. Yanzick tossed to second baseman Brenton Peters for the second out, but Griffin beat out Peters' throw to first and allowed Holberton to score the game's first run.
The Tar Heels broke through with four runs in the fourth. With everyone in attendance anticipating imminent rain, they saw a deluge of UNC hits in the inning instead – six, to be exact – giving the home side a 5-0 lead. A pair of attempts at diving catches by Big Red fielders narrowly missed, deflecting off gloves to lead to RBI hits.
The Big Red responded with three hits in the top of the fifth, but couldn't push a run across. After back-to-back hits from Tom D'Alessandro and Kevin Tatum, Peters smacked a two-out hit through the right side. D'Alessandro tried to score from second, but the throw from the rightfielder was on the money and the easy tag was applied.
Freshman Nick Busto relieved Marks as the rain intensified to record the final out of the fourth inning, then he got through a scoreless fifth inning.
Yanzick led off the sixth inning with an infield hit to his positional counterpart. Billigen took two balls to start his at-bat, then cranked a two-run homer over the 355-foot mark on the fence in right-center field to get the Big Red on the board and cut the deficit to 5-2. The home run brings Billigen into a tie for second place for home runs in program history, one off the pace set by Walkenbach, a four-year starter at shortstop before his graduation in 1998.
"I was able to get into the hitting count. He got ahead of me in those first two at-bats," Billigen said, referring to a pair of strikeouts in his first trips to the plate. "I was fighting, and I was able to get to 2-0 and saw a fastball. He left one up and in, so I got a nice swing on it."
Billigen's blast spelled the end of the day for UNC starter Hobbs Johnson, but lightning within the darkening skies then forced a stoppage of play before reliever R.C. Orlan could complete his warm-up pitches.
The delay lasted 1 hour, 11 minutes, but the Big Red bats didn't cool off over the break. Lee and D'Alessandro had back-to-back singles, then Tatum guided a two-strike pitch through the right side to score Lee. Ben Swinford then drew a walk to load the bases, but that's how the threat would end with Orlan getting a strikeout to set down the side.
"I think Cornell showed you what it's like playing in the NCAA Tournament after (35) years. with the excitement of being here," said North Carolina head coach Mike Fox, who won his 51st NCAA tournament game. "I thought they played terrific. They'd probably like to have a couple walks, a couple ground balls back and that game is entirely different.
"I don't want to take anything away from our team because the first game in a regional is always that one you just have to work really hard to get the win and get past this one, but I really thought Cornell just played outstanding," Fox added.
The Tar Heels extended their lead to 7-3 by plating a pair in the bottom of the sixth. A walk and a pair of singles chased home the first run of the inning, then Houston Hawley emerged from the bullpen. For the second time in the game, UNC executed a sacrifice bunt only to have an error allow the runner to reach and load the bases with no out.
Hawley – from nearby Apex, N.C. – responded by striking out the next batter swinging, then got some help when a ball hit on the screws was snagged by a diving Yanzick for the second out. The play was so impressive that it induced a standing ovation from several of the 1,677 fans in attendance, even though most were pulling for the home side. The Tar Heels were able to score their second unearned run of the game on the Big Red's fourth error before Hawley struck out the next batter to leave the bases loaded.
Cornell got one more run in the eighth in an inning which featured three UNC pitching changes. Lee led off with his third single of the day. Tatum drew a one-out walk, but was then retired on a fielder's choice for the inning's second out. Peters followed with a single to left-center, plating Lee and making the score 7-4.
The Big Red didn't go down without one last fight. Against UNC closer Michael Morin In the ninth inning, Billigen scrapped out a leadoff walk, then moved to second when Chris Cruz followed with a single through the right side. But Morin retired the next three batters consecutively, leaving the Big Red on the ropes coming into Saturday games. Cornell has twice come out on top in do-or-die games this season, both times in extra innings.
"They did a good job with their matchups," Lee said of UNC's relief pitchers. "They came in and they did their jobs. … They had guys with good off-speed (pitches). It's tough sometimes to have those rallies end, but you have to come back and make adjustments the next day."
Cornell will match up against the second seed in the regional, East Carolina. The Pirates, a Conference USA squad which earned an at-large bid into the tournament, dropped the regional opener to third-seeded St. John's, 11-3.