After sweeping its way through the Fullerton Regional and advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, the Stanford baseball team was confronted with a harsh reality. Mark Marquess's squad would travel across the country for a best-of-three series against North Carolina, which is 34-3 at Boshamer Stadium after polishing off its Chapel Hill Regional opponents by a combined score of 27-3.
No one said the road to Omaha would be easy.
The Tar Heels, who made four consecutive College World Series appearances from 2006-2009 and boast seven more NCAA tournament wins than any other team since that streak began, will send Patrick Johnson to the mound for Friday's opener (Noon, ESPN2). Johnson hasn't allowed a run in his last 23 innings, a span of three starts that includes a complete-game four hitter against No. 1 Virginia. The senior right-hander struck out 11 in last Saturday's win against James Madison to improve to 12-1.
The Cardinal will counter with Jordan Pries, who has been nearly as dominant of late. Pries was named MVP of the Fullerton Regional after pitching 7.2 shutout innings in Saturday's 1-0 win against CSF and has allowed only one run over his last 23 innings.
Pitching figures to be the key to the series and it will be important for Stanford's pitchers to limit the free passes. The Heels have the third-most walks in the country and average more than five per game. Third baseman Colin Moran leads UNC with a .335 average, nine home runs, and 69 RBI. The Freshman All-America has also walked 45 times and struck out 31 times. Sophomore second baseman Tommy Coyle, who is batting .322, leads the team in runs (55) and stolen bases (18).
Stanford will need another big series from its underclassmen, including Feshman All-America Brian Ragira, but they'll look to their veterans for leadership. Marquess is confident that this season's brutal early schedule has prepared his team well for the challenge it faces in Chapel Hill.
This series feels a little like the Stanford softball team's trip to Alabama. Let's hope it doesn't end with the home team celebrating.