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|GAME AT A
Point: South Carolina was down to its final strike, trailing by a run in the 12th, when Jackie Bradley Jr. pulled a 3-and-2 pitch through the right side of the infield for an RBI single, scoring Robert Beary from second. Beary had started the inning with a crisp single on an 0-and-2 count, then stole second two batters later, but South Carolina had failed to produce with men in scoring position over and over again Thursday, until Bradley turned the tide in the 12th.
OMAHA—In the end, it didn’t matter that South Carolina was 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position heading into the 12th inning. It didn’t matter that the Gamecocks failed to get bunts down in key spots in the 11th and 12th. It didn’t matter that Jackie Bradley Jr. and Brady Thomas were a combined 0-for-10 heading into that 12th inning.
“We struggled early on, but we were just able to flush it,” Thomas said.
The resilient Gamecocks were down to their final strike in the 12th inning, when Bradley delivered a game-tying single, then slid home on Thomas’ walk-off RBI single two batters later to give South Carolina a thrilling 3-2 win against Oklahoma.
“A great, great college baseball game, and that’s how it should be,” Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said.
It was the second time in this College World Series that Oklahoma (50-18) and South Carolina (50-16) played an intense game decided by one run. Oklahoma won the CWS opener for both teams, 4-3, but South Carolina won the bigger game Thursday, eliminating the Sooners from the CWS and sending the Gamecocks on to a showdown against arch-rival Clemson on Friday.
“It was another great baseball game between the Gamecocks and the Sooners,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “The first time we met, it was a heck of a game, and it was really the same thing tonight. It was a battle. We got a great start out of Blake Cooper. We just fought, and they fought . . . And it was late, but Jackie came up with a big hit and Brady hits one through the middle. It was an incredible win for us.”
The story for both teams was superb pitching. While Cooper gave South Carolina 5 2/3 strong innings on three days’ rest—allowing just one run on four hits and two walks while striking out six—Oklahoma starter Zach Neal stymied the Gamecocks for seven innings, allowing just a run on five hits and a walk while whiffing seven. After allowing a single to Evan Marzilli leading off the game, Neal retired 14 straight before South Carolina loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth, but he ended the threat by getting Marzilli to pop up in foul territory.
Oklahoma led 1-0 after seven, as Neal stranded runners in scoring position in the first, fifth and seventh innings. But Marzilli started the eighth with a double, chasing Neal, and Christian Walker drove him in three batters later to tie the game.
That was the last Gamecock to reach base until the 11th, as Oklahoma reliever Jeremy Erben retired eight straight. Erben, who had pitched three innings over Oklahoma’s previous two CWS games, finished with four sterling innings of relief Thursday, allowing just two hits. Neal and Erben gave the Sooners a great chance to win even though their bats had just as much trouble generating offense as South Carolina’s.
“(Neal) pitched the game of his career at Oklahoma right here at Rosenblatt—I can’t say enough about how poised he was and how terrific he pitched for us today,” Golloway said. “To ask Erben to pitch in all three games—and we know Jeremy, we know how strong he is and we knew he could do it, and he had good stuff there at the end.”
But South Carolina’s deep bullpen was just as good or better, as relievers Michael Roth, John Taylor and Matt Price combined to pitch 5 1/3 hitless innings of relief, striking out seven. The flame-throwing Price was responsible for five of those strikeouts, and from the ninth through the 11th, the game turned into a duel between he and Erben.
“Price was spectacular—I mean, he was really, really good.” Tanner said. “I thought Price was as good as I’ve seen in a long time. And Erben matched him. It could have gone on for a while with those two guys out there.”
But Price threw 51 pitches over his three brilliant innings, two days after throwing 38 pitches against Arizona State, so Tanner had to pull him heading into the 12th. Oklahoma catcher Tyler Ogle greeted new pitcher Ethan Carter with a solo homer to right, giving the Sooners a 2-1 lead.
Erben was up to 51 pitches himself, so the Sooners pulled him in favor of their closer, Ryan Duke, in the bottom of the frame. Duke surrendered a leadoff single to Robert Beary, but for the second time in two innings, the Gamecocks failed to execute a bunt, as Marzilli fouled off two attempts then struck out. Beary stole second during the next at-bat, but after Whit Merrifield popped out in foul ground, South Carolina was down to its final out.
“When you’re not executing, you feel like (the big hit is) hard to come by,” Tanner said. “And certainly from my vantage point, when you’re not getting the bunts down, you’re thinking, well, maybe we need to hit-and-run here, maybe we need to turn some guys loose . . . So it was a little frustrating, but you just keep plugging. As long as you keep getting your tying run to the on-deck circle, you feel like you’ve got a chance.”
Even with first base open, the Sooners elected to attack Bradley. He worked the count full, then pulled a single just to the right of first baseman Cameron Seitzer to score Beary.
“At first I was thinking, ‘Man, nobody on first base, they’re trying to pitch around me a little bit,’ ” Bradley said. “As soon as he started coming at me, I got ready again. I happened to get behind in the count, battled. And that pitch I actually took in a 2-2 count, it was close. It was too close to take, but it was off the plate. And I was able to get a pitch right down the middle on a 3-2 count. I put a good swing on it and pushed it through to the right side.”
After a walk, Thomas brought Bradley home with a hard single up the middle on a fastball. An inning earlier, Thomas had popped up his bunt attempt in foul ground, and Seitzer had caught it.
That didn’t matter at the end of the 12th, as South Carolina celebrated its improbable, dramatic comeback victory.
“We just battled like we’ve done all year,” Thomas said. “And we were able to come through. It felt really good.”