COLUMBIA, S.C.—The opening game of the Columbia Super Regional saw Connecticut come out firing on all cylinders while host South Carolina stumbled. But the Gamecocks righted the ship behind another sterling effort by ace Michael Roth, and the defending national champions had the final say in a 5-1 win.
While South Carolina’s program has the prestige, the Huskies may have more star power with first-round picks Matt Barnes and George Springer. And it was the Huskies’ stars who fired the game’s opening salvo.
Springer roped a single to left-center field and scored the game’s opening run in the top of the first. Barnes then came out and blew away the Gamecocks’ first two hitters with mid-90s fastballs before freezing No. 3 hitter Christian Walker with a slider on the inside corner. It looked like it might be a long night for the throng in garnet and black.
“We just told the guys, ‘Hey, we’ve got to keep battling,’ ” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “'We’re going to have to scrap. We’re not going to get a lot off this guy, but we’ve got to be competitive and try to get the ball to fall and keep it close. Let’s get deep in the game and win it late if we have to.' ”
They wouldn’t have to wait that long. The Gamecocks might not have the flashiest offense, but they have a lineup filled with disciplined hitters who grind and don’t get themselves out, and they made Barnes work for every out after he made that opening statement in the first. South Carolina scored single runs in the third and fourth—doing so after Barnes had retired the first two hitters each time—to take the lead. Then the wheels came off for the Huskies in the fifth.
Barnes was knocked out of the game after giving up three runs and five hits in the inning, while the Gamecocks ran his pitch count up to 97 in just 4 1/3 innings of work. The Huskies didn’t help matters by committing two errors behind Barnes, to go along with a wild pitch and a passed ball, all in that one inning.
“In the first inning, I thought it was going to be our night,” Connecticut coach Jim Penders said. “(Barnes) looked lights out. He was pitching well. I thought they (South Carolina) were extremely disciplined and not chasing after the first inning. They made him work and made him get his pitch count up. The fought a lot of tough pitches off.”
For his part, Barnes felt he didn’t repeat his delivery well enough after the first. His velocity, which peaked at 97 mph early, sat mostly in the low 90s the rest of the way, and he had just three more strikeouts.
“In the later innings, I just wasn’t making pitches when I had to,” Barnes said. “That pretty much sums it up.”
Barnes’ power arsenal was a stark contrast to the lefthander Roth, who may never scrape 90 mph but who did a masterful job of changing speeds and keeping the Huskies’ potent hitters off balance. His changeup was especially valuable against Connecticut’s predominantly righthanded lineup, and he pounded the lower half of the zone.
The Huskies did have a chance with Roth on the ropes early, though. Connecticut put runners on the corners with one out in the second, a golden opportunity to extend their 1-0 lead. Roth had been having trouble finding the zone, throwing six straight balls at one point.
The Huskies tried to get aggressive, calling for a safety squeeze, but the Gamecocks were ready. First baseman Christian Walker attacked Billy Ferriter’s bunt and fired to the plate in time to cut down the runner. Roth subsequently got a fly out to end the inning. A fantastic double play started by a diving snag by third baseman Adrian Morales snuffed out a potential rally in the third, and Huskies didn’t seriously threaten again until the seventh, by which time they trailed by four runs.
“We tried a safety squeeze there,” Penders said. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve let Billy hit there, especially with a 2-0 count.”
Roth didn’t record his first strikeout until the eighth inning, and he had just two on the night, yet he allowed just six hits (all singles) and one unearned run. His pitch count reached 119 before he was pulled with one out in the ninth, after which he was rewarded with a standing ovation from the over 8,000 fans in attendance, another chapter added to his postseason legend.
“He really is amazing,” Tanner said of Roth. “He continues to battle. He goes out and tries to stay out there as long as he can. Two or three times in the seventh and eighth, I was thinking about going to the pen. We’ve got a pretty good pen. But he was going good. His pitch count was good. You sort of have to defer to guys like that, especially based on what he’s done for us.”
So now the attention turns to Game Two on Sunday night. The Huskies have had their backs to the wall before, having won four elimination games after dropping their opener to survive the Clemson Regional last weekend. They won’t be overcome by the situation, but nor will the defending champions, who stand one win away from a return trip to Omaha.
“In the huddle (after the game), they’re just smiling,” Penders said of his players. “They’ve been here before. It’s unfortunate that we’re too comfortable (in this situation). But our comfort level hopefully will pay off tomorrow.”
“These guys get it, they really do,” Tanner said. “We kicked it around early tonight. There wasn’t a lot of panic in the dugout. It was, 'Hey, we’ve got to do a little bit better than this.’ There’s some maturity. There’s some experience. They know the deal.
“We also know we could come out tomorrow and they could run us out of here. They’re that good, and we’re not that good. Our guys know that. We don’t just throw our gloves out. We have to play well.”
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