By Bobby Hundley, UNC Athletic Communications
OMAHA --- Much digital ink has been spilled debating the merits of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, the 3-year-old home of the College World Series. Brian Holberton's first-inning home run there Tuesday was the 21st in CWS play at the venue and the first hit out to right-center. In addition to dimensions that make the park more pitcher-friendly than Rosenblatt Stadium, TDAPO is equipped with Dodger Stadium-esque foul territory that turns many a harmless foul pop into an out.
Whether you enjoy that the college game -- especially as it is played in Omaha -- has become a throwback where pitching and defense rule the day or you yearn for the days of "Gorilla Ball" and double-digit scoring, it certainly cannot be denied that runs in the CWS are at a premium perhaps unlike ever before. In the final three years at Rosenblatt, runs were scored at a rate of 11.6 per game. Through the end of Oregon State's 1-0 win over Indiana Wednesday, runs at TDAPO have come at a 7.0 runs per game clip.
Holberton had one of the more unique lines you'll see Tuesday, finishing 2 for 4 with the two-run homer as well as a single and a sacrifice bunt.
"Out here you always want to play with a lead," Holberton said Wednesday after practice at Boys Town. "It's hard to get runs out here with the competition and the pitching, and if you can get a run, you've gotta try and get it."
The junior catcher's seventh inning sacrifice moved Colin Moran into scoring position, and two batters later Skye Bolt's sharp single to left scored Moran with a key insurance run that pushed the Tar Heel lead to 4-1. That run loomed even larger when LSU scratched out a run in the bottom of the frame, as no team in the 114-game history of TDAPO -- CWS games, Creighton home games and others -- has ever rallied from a two-run ninth-inning deficit.
"Earlier in the year, we'd score a lot of runs, and it would be good to have those, but you can't rely on the big innings anymore," Holberton added. "You've gotta take runs when you can get them. If you get a runner on base, you've gotta bunt him over. I think that's what every team out here is going to try to do - play a little small ball and get the lead and try to keep it. I think that's how we're going to approach the rest of the year."
In addition to opportunistic offense, a steady defense that can take advantage of the real estate inside the walls of TDAPO is key to success in the "new" Omaha.
Chaz Frank stressed the importance not only of running down fly balls but of keeping balls that do get down out of the gaps.
"With the park not being a home run park, runs are hard to come by," Frank said. "Teams have to execute -- hit-and-runs, bunts, stuff like that. It's very beneficial that we've got speed in the outfield that can track down those balls and keep them off second base. That's what we try to do is keep them off second base and allow our pitchers to maybe get a double play ball to get us out of an inning."
"I think any time you come out here, you know pitching and defense are going to win," assistant coach Scott Jackson said. "So you want to talk to your guys as much as you can and have an idea in mind of how important those outs are and how much room you have for balls that are in the air."
Trent Thornton and Chris McCue allowed 10 hits to LSU on Tuesday, but only Sean McMullen's leadoff double in the seventh was of the extra base variety. Keeping the Tigers from driving the ball to the gaps helped the Tar Heels strand 13 LSU runners.
"We've talked to our guys about making sure they understand where they are, making sure they understand the situation and being a lot more careful late in the game with balls that we can hopefully keep in front of us and play to a single instead of a double," Jackson said.
Carolina's last eight wins have come by a margin of three runs or less. Four of those, including the 18-inning win over NC State in the ACC tournament, were one-run games.
As Hobbs Johnson takes the mound for the Tar Heels on Thursday against the Wolfpack in what will be the rubber game in a five-game season series, expect TD Ameritrade Park and how both teams adjust to its challenges to play a major factor. And expect both teams to value each and every precious run.