COLUMBIA, S.C.—Connecticut gave South Carolina everything it could handle, but the Gamecocks’ bullpen shined and Christian Walker hit a tie-breaking home run in the eighth inning. The Gamecocks pulled away late, and the defending national champions returned to the College World Series by a final score of 8-2, sweeping the Columbia Super Regional.
Connecticut opened up a 2-0 lead in the second inning against South Carolina starter Colby Holmes, and even many of the Huskies’ outs were hit hard. Holmes made it to the fifth inning, but after two men reached and then the first out of the inning was made on a hard-hit fly to left, it was time for a change.
The Gamecocks’ bullpen has been one of the team’s biggest strengths, anchored by closer Matt Price. While their starting rotation has had turnover since the end of last year and even during the course of this season, the bullpen has always been there.
“(Connecticut) continued to hit a few balls hard,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “That’s where we get to the fourth or fifth, we say this is where we go with our matchup guys down there and try to hang in there.”
First out of the bullpen was righthander Jose Mata, who escaped the fifth by getting Connecticut’s John Andreoli to line into a double play. Double plays would be a theme of the middle innings, as Connecticut failed to build on its early lead. The Huskies loaded the bases with one out in the sixth, but sidearming righthander John Taylor—making his team-high 45th appearance—got Doug Elliot to bounce into a 1-2-3 twin-killing. The Gamecocks turned another double play in the sixth.
In all, four Gamecock relievers—Mata, Taylor, lefthander Tyler Webb and closer Price—pitched 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. The Gamecocks’ bullpen gave them a chance. Now they needed to score.
South Carolina tied the game with single runs in the fourth and sixth, but gutsy Connecticut senior lefthander Greg Nappo kept his team in the game as well. Nappo gave up eight hits through the first seven innings but avoided any serious damage. He didn’t overpower South Carolina’s hitters, but he filled the strike zone and kept them off balance enough to get deep in the game.
UConn has a deep bullpen of its own, but the Huskies decided to let Nappo go back out for the eighth. His pitch count was under 90. He’d retired the Gamecocks in order in the seventh.
“We talked about (making a change) with (pitching coach) Justin (Blood),” Connecticut coach Jim Penders said. “(Nappo) looked Justin and me right in the eye and said he had to go back out.”
Walker, the Gamecocks’ best power hitter, was leading off the eighth. Nappo tried to start the righthanded-hitting Walker out with a changeup. But he missed his spot, and Walker drove the ball just over the left-field wall to give South Carolina a 3-2 lead and send Carolina Stadium into a frenzy.
The homer had echoes of 2010 for Walker, who hit a game-winning homer in Game Two of the Gamecocks’ super regional against Coastal Carolina last season.
“I said (to Walker), ‘You’re gonna see another changeup,’ “ Tanner said. “’Put a good swing on it. If you pull it, you’ve got a chance.’ “
Nappo was replaced two hitters later. The Gamecocks nearly put the game away in the eighth, eventually loading the bases with two outs. But Huskies center fielder George Springer made the defensive play of the series, making a running, over-the-shoulder catch to keep the score 3-2.
Springer’s catch could have been a turning point, but the Gamecocks had the lead. And they had Price. The Gamecocks closer calmly pitched around a leadoff single in the eighth, mixing his low-90s fastball and devastating slider to strike out the last two hitters.
The Gamecocks erased all doubt with five runs in the top of the ninth, and Price pitched a scoreless bottom half to clinch it, completing a 5-0 run through regionals and super regionals. Going back to last year’s CWS, it was the Gamecocks’ 11th straight win in the NCAA tournament. South Carolina returns to the CWS for the fifth time under Tanner and 10th time in school history.
While the defending champions’ return may not seem like a surprise on some levels, the ride has had its share of bumps in the road. The Gamecocks have survived injuries—most notably to star center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.—shuffled players around on the mound and in the field, yet still found a way to win 50 games and get back to Omaha for the second straight year.
“It’s hard to find enough guys to do that, and they did it,” Tanner said of his team’s ability to weather its losses and keep going. “It’s just an incredible group, for me. Those guys just keep grinding and thinking that, ‘This is going to work. I’m not Jackie Bradley in center field or I’m not an Adam Matthews-type talent, but we’re going to find a way to get it done.’ And they survived.”
“Honestly, this is the first time all year I believe we were defeated by a better team,” Penders said. “They’re a better team than we are right now. We aspire to be the kind of program that they are.”