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Bethea's blast in ninth puts St. John's in final

St. John's Danny Bethea rounds the bases after

St. John's Danny Bethea rounds the bases after his home run in the ninth inning against North Carolina during an NCAA college baseball tournament regional game. (June 2, 2012) Credit: AP

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Under normal circumstances, the crowd at North Carolina's Boshamer Stadium would have gone wild over seeing a walk-off home run by the home team. Saturday, there was only stunned silence after St. John's Danny Bethea blasted a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.

Bethea's dramatic blast off Tar Heels closer Michael Morin erased a two-run deficit and lifted St. John's -- which was playing as the home team -- to a 5-4 victory in the winners' bracket of the NCAA Tournament's Chapel Hill Regional.

With the win, the third-seeded Red Storm advances into the championship round of the double elimination tournament. It can wrap up its first regional title since 1980 Sunday at 6 p.m. against the winner of an elimination game between UNC and East Carolina.

"I was looking for something I could elevate so I could stay out of the double play," said Bethea, a junior catcher who was batting with runners on first and third and one out. "He threw me a fastball up and in, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands through it. That was a great feeling."

SJU (39-21) looked to be beaten after UNC scored an insurance run in the top of the ninth to give Morin a two-run cushion. The junior righthander was poised to set a school record with his 19th save for a team that had won its previous 16 regional games in Chapel Hill.

But the Red Storm, as it has so many times this season, never stopped battling.

Jeremy Baltz led off the winning rally with a double off the wall in right-centerfield. Sean O'Hare then hit a ball into the hole that shortstop Michael Russell smothered with a diving stop, but couldn't make a play. It was O'Hare's third hit of the game and sixth of the tournament.

Morin recovered to strike out DH Zach Lauricella, but he made a game-ending mistake after getting ahead of Bethea with a first-pitch strike.

"It was a typical storybook ending for a game like that," Red Storm coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "We were able to stay within striking distance. A couple of hits and you never know. That's why this game is the greatest one around."

For the second straight day at the Chapel Hill regional, SJU got a strong effort from its starting pitcher. Just as Kyle Hansen did in Friday's first-round win against ECU, lefthander Sean Hagen pitched deep into the game to give his team a chance to win.

"[Hagen] stayed the course and made quality pitches," Blankmeyer said. "Whatever situation evolves, he always seems to get out of it. It's great to play behind a pitcher like that."

The one jam Hagen couldn't get out of came in the ninth. But after allowing an RBI double to No. 9 hitter Parks Jordan, relievers James Lomangino and Kevin Kilpatrick prevented further trouble, leaving the door open for Bethea's walk-off heroics.

"It was a little deflating when that fourth run came in," Hagen said. "But as soon as Jeremy got on to lead off the inning, the mood slowly started to change. As soon as the ball left Danny's bat, there was no doubt about it. As soon as [the ball] went over the leftfielder's glove, everyone went crazy."

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