Kent Emanuel has made a habit out of working into the seventh inning all season long. When the junior lefthander was knocked out in the third inning on Saturday, UNC's bullpen stepped in and quieted South Carolina's bats en route to a 6-5 victory.
The Gamecocks wasted little time in attacking Emanuel (2.1 IP, 7 hits, 4 ER) in the opening game of Super Regional play. Leadoff hitter Graham Saiko singled to center and Chase Vergason moved him to second on a single to right. Three batters later, with the bases loaded, Grayson Greiner gave South Carolina a 2-0 lead with a single to left.
The Gamecocks retook the lead at 3-2 on Saiko's RBI single in the second and pushed the margin to 4-2 on Joey Pankake's bomb over the left field wall in the third. Emanuel's day was done with two on and one out three batters later.
"He wasn't locating any of his off-speed pitches," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters during his postgame press conference. "His changeup was floating on him a little bit. He couldn't command his breaking ball, so it was basically just one pitch there for him."
Emanuel had reached the seventh inning in 14 of his previous 15 starts this season. The lone outlier was a five-inning outing in UNC's 5-4 loss at Georgia Tech on May 10.
Saturday's outing was his shortest since facing nine batters in 1 1/3 innings against N.C. State on Apr. 16, 2011.
UNC effectively switched its approach to a staff day. Chris Munnelly (1.1 IP, 2 hits) stranded both South Carolina runners and stemmed South Carolina's momentum in the third. Tate Parrish (0.1 IP) entered the game for a lefty-lefty matchup against L.B. Dantzler in the fourth and forced a fly out with two runners on.
Chris McCue held the Gamecocks scoreless through his two innings of work and Trent Thornton (3.0 IP, 3 hits, ER) picked up his 10th win of the season in closing the game out.
"Our bullpen saved us today," Fox said.
Despite holding a 4-2 edge when UNC's ace southpaw exited in the third inning, South Carolina managed only one run over the final 6 2/3 innings. The Gamecocks' leadoff man reached in seven innings, yet they hit .091 (1-11) with men in scoring position after Emanuel exited.
"We swung the bats very well," South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook said. "We did what we could do against a great pitching staff."
South Carolina's lone run came in the eighth when Vergason doubled to left-centerfield to tie the game at 5-5, setting the stage for Skye Bolt's dramatic game-winning in the single in the bottom of the ninth.
"We had some good at-bats there early off a very good pitcher in Emanuel, but they just showed the depth of their bullpen throughout the game," Greiner said. "He came out early, but they were able to sustain with the bullpen. I think the bullpen went six or seven innings and kept us off balance.
"We weren't able to get anything going like we were off Emanuel towards the end of the game. That's a credit to them. They've got a great bullpen."
Emanuel's struggles drew extra attention due to his involvement in the criticism directed at Fox and associate head coach/pitching coach Scott Forbes earlier this week.
UNC turned to all three members of its weekend rotation in relief during Monday's 13-inning thriller against Florida Atlantic. Emanuel threw 51 pitches in 1.2 innings after throwing 124 pitches in his start two days earlier.
"Last weekend didn't have any bearing on Kent today," Fox said.
Emanuel has allowed 14 earned runs on 16 hits over his last 6.2 innings pitched. He entered June with a 2.11 ERA; that mark now stands at 3.18.
The second game of this Super Regional will be played at 1pm on Sunday.