CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — There’s a tiny margin for error in the NCAA tournament.
The University of Maine baseball team found that out the hard way Friday night during the first round of the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional.
Regional host and No. 3 national seed North Carolina scored four runs in the first inning, then rode the pitching of lefthander Kent Emanuel to a 4-0 victory over the Black Bears in front of 2,269 fans at Boshamer Stadium.
Top-seeded North Carolina (46-14) advances to Saturday’s 6 p.m. winners’ bracket game against No. 3 James Madison (41-17), an 11-7 winner over No. 2 seed Florida International (40-19-1) in Friday’s regional opener.
Coach Steve Trimper’s Bears (32-23) must regroup and face the Golden Panthers in Saturday’s 1 p.m. elimination game.
A resilient UMaine team intends to bounce back strong.
“I don’t think we’ve lost too much confidence,” said senior co-captain Joey Martin of Portland, who singled twice among seven UMaine hits.
“It’s just one ballgame and we know that we have to come out (Saturday) ready to go. We’ve got to win to stay alive.”
North Carolina prevailed despite the absence of veteran head coach Mike Fox, who was not with the team Friday while attending to an undisclosed personal situation.
The Tar Heels were guided by assistant coach Scott Forbes.
“I would be where he is. It is what it is, but I think he trusts me,” Forbes said of Fox.
Emanuel (7-1) helped take the pressure off his pitching coach as he spread out seven hits, all singles, over eight innings. The freshman worked his way around repeated early challenges by the Bears.
“I felt today as the game went on I definitely got better,” Emanuel said. “It didn’t feel like I had really my best stuff, but I was going out there hanging around the strike zone and able to get outs.”
He struck out five and walked one before Michael Morin worked a perfect ninth inning.
“I thought the story of the game for us was Kent Emmanuel,” Forbes said. “He pounded the strike zone.”
It was the first inning that spoiled the day for UMaine and junior starter Keith Bilodeau (10-3), who failed in his bid to become the first Black Bears pitcher to register 11 victories in a season.
Bilodeau walked leadoff batter Chaz Frank, but struck out the next two hitters. After a balk, Jesse Wierzbicki lined an RBI single to center field for the only run the Tar Heels would need.
Tommy Coyle drew another walk and Jacob Stallings worked a 2-1 count before smashing a towering, three-run home run to left field.
“We called for a cutter (cut fastball) inside and I missed middle-in,” Bilodeau explained. “He couldn’t have taken a better pitch to hit. It was just one bad pitch.”
“Obviously, it’s NCAA tournament time and the better a start you can get off to, the better,” Stallings said. “I was able to help our team out today and that’s what feels good about it.”
Bilodeau gave up only five hits in seven innings. He struck out six and walked two while throwing 100 pitches.
“I’ve got to tip my hat to Keith Bilodeau,” Forbes said. “After we hit that three-run home run, we were thinking we might have a big inning. He did a good job of keeping them in the game. I thought they played well.”
Jesse Wierzbicki paced North Carolina with a double, two singles and an RBI.
Taylor Lewis and Martin each stroked two singles for the Bears.
It was a game of missed opportunities for UMaine, which had the leadoff man on in the first, opened the second inning with back-to-back singles and had a runner at second with one out in the fourth, only to come up empty.
The Bears went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and left six men on base.
“The game came down to that we just didn’t get that second hit,” Trimper said.
“That’s what (Emanuel) did really well is, when we had a leadoff guy on or a first-and-second, he got the next guy out or he got a double-play ball,” he added. “His defense played great behind him, too.”
UMaine’s best scoring opportunity came in the second when Tyler Patzalek and Justin Leisenheimer led off with singles. However, Alex Calbick failed to get a sacrifice bunt down on the first pitch and wound up grounding into a 6-4-3 double play.
“We’ve been doing a pretty good job of playing a little bit of ‘small ball,’” Trimper offered. “We didn’t get that bunt down. That was a big play.”
Emanuel then struck out Leisenheimer with Patzalek on third to end the threat.
Lewis opened the game by beating out an infield hit, but wound up getting picked off at first base with Michael Fransoso at the plate. Lewis appeared to slip in the dirt when he tried to plant his right foot to make the dive back into the base.
UMaine got the leadoff runner aboard again in the fourth inning on Martin’s leadoff single, but the Bears were unable to get him past second base.
The Bears had another failed threat in the fifth when Colin Gay laced a one-out single to center and Lewis drew a walk with two outs. However, Emanuel got Fransoso to bounce out to first base.
“Maybe if we could put one across in that second inning or somewhere in between, we could have had a chance to win,” Martin said.
The Tar Heels had a chance to extend their lead in the sixth after Wierzbicki laced a leadoff double down the left-field line. He was moved over with a sacrifice bunt, but Bilodeau got the last two outs, including a nice stab of a one-hopper by third baseman Calbick.
The Bears plan to leave it all on the field Saturday against FIU.
“We hung in the game all the way to the end, so we know we can come out and play against top teams,” Bilodeau said. “That’s definitely good going into (Saturday).”