06/15/08 — Unfinished business: Heel's right-hander ready to shed bridesmaid's role in Omaha

View Archive

Unfinished business: Heel's right-hander ready to shed bridesmaid's role in Omaha

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on June 15, 2008 2:03 AM

Rob Wooten and his North Carolina teammates have enjoyed their trips to baseball's mecca -- the College World Series at Omaha, Neb.

But the senior concedes that runner-up finishes in the Tar Heels' previous two appearances have been nothing less than frustrating. They're ready to shed the bridesmaid's role and return home with a national championship.

History doesn't favor UNC, however.

Three other teams -- Yale, Arizona State and Stanford -- failed to claim CWS titles on their third try after posting back-to-back, second-place efforts.

"We've had a great time the last two years and we're not disappointed with anything that we've done," said Wooten. "We have a great team and we've got just as good a shot as anybody else. We're more familiar now with the atmosphere that is just phenonemal.

"The experience is great and the teams are great. We've got a big challenge ahead of us, but we're up for it."

The No. 2 national seed, North Carolina (51-12 overall) opposes No. 7 national seed LSU (48-17-1) today at 7 p.m. before a nationally-televised audience on ESPN. The Tigers have won five national titles with the last coming in 2000 and are 2-0 all-time against the Tar Heels.

"LSU ... that's who you grew up watching when you were little," said Wooten. "They haven't been there in a while, so they'll be hungry. But, we're hungry too, so we're going to get after them."

North Carolina opened last year's College World Series against the Southeastern Conference and collected an 8-5 win over Mississippi State. The Tar Heels are 5-1 against the SEC in the postseason over the last three seasons.

Those consecutive championship losses to Oregon State, though, remain vivid for Wooten. The right-hander made an NCAA-record six appearances in the 2007 CWS and used that experience for this spring.

The Charles B. Aycock graduate is 6-2 with a 1.80 earned run average. He's permitted 35 hits in 55 innings and logged 67 strikeouts. Opposing teams are batting just .179 against him.

"Last year was very good and I wanted to feed off that," said Wooten. "I came in with the same mentality ... had some up-and-down games, but more up than down this season. I came into the year as a closer knowing that I could pitch in any inning.

"I like finishing the game, but it gives me confidence if they put me out there during the biggest part of the game."

Unlike 2007, there is no Andrew Kerrigan to clean up behind Wooten.

"It was nice having him behind me, knowing that if I didn't get the job done, I'd have an All-American coming in to clean up my mess," said Wooten, who has made 39 mound appearances this season. "Last year, I had to be ready the first pitch of the game and not so much at the end. The last three outs of any game are by far the hardest to get.

"It seems like the other team bares down, concentrates more and focuses more."

Wooten has recorded a team-leading four saves and assisted in four of the team's eight shutouts this season. Overall, the Tar Heel pitching staff has a collective 2.83 ERA and has allowed just 0.83 hits an inning this spring.

"We've had a great year as a team and I've done great individually, but we're not done yet," said Wooten. "We came back home (after the Oregon State loss) and said we need to get back to this point. We've tasted it. We said we need not to mess around and take care of business.

"We want to win it all."

Once Wooten throws his final pitch on the Rosenblatt Stadium diamond, he'll continue his career in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization. He was drafted in the 13th round more than a week ago.

"The last two or three weeks heading up to the draft were hard," said Wooten. "(Every day) you go out there, you can't help but think about it. They've obviously seen something they want, so once I was drafted, I said 'you can go out there and pitch now.'"

And, hopefully, become that long-awaited bride with a championship ring on his finger.