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|GAME AT A
Point: Florida had the bases loaded with no outs in the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied 1-1. But South Carolina second baseman Scott Wingo saved the game with a diving stop and throw home for a force out, then started an inning-ending 4-2-3 double play to force extras.
OMAHA—The absurd thing is, Monday’s win felt almost commonplace for South Carolina. It was just another hair-raising, improbable, utterly thrilling victory in a long line of hair-raising, improbable, utterly thrilling victories.
The Gamecocks moved within one win of their second consecutive national title with a 2-1 win against Florida in 11 innings—yet another postseason win loaded with memorable, heroic performances by South Carolina.
You didn’t think the tension of Friday’s 13-inning win against Virginia could be topped? This was awfully close—and it was even more unfathomable on the heels of Friday’s win, when the Gamecocks escaped jam after jam after jam.
Eventually, sophomore first baseman Christian Walker scored the winning run for South Carolina. Just as the Gamecocks scored the winning run against UVa. on back-to-back errors Friday, they scored the winning run against Florida on back-to-back errors—on the same play. After Walker hit a one-out single up the middle in the 11th, he headed to second on a hit-and-run play, but Adam Matthews swung through the pitch. But catcher Mike Zunino’s throw to second sailed into center field, so Walker bolted for third. And center fielder Bryson Smith’s throw to third bounced in the dirt and out of play, allowing Walker to waltz home.
An hour before game time, Walker wasn’t even in the starting lineup because of a broken hamate bone in his left wrist, diagnosed Monday morning. South Carolina flew in two doctors from the school’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine center, and they treated Walker—including with massages and a brace—after he stretched with the team before the game.
“I knew it was going to take a lot of pain for me not to play,” Walker said. “And for the last half of yesterday I didn’t think I was going to be able to play.”
“I’m shocked that he was able to play tonight,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “When you have a hamate fracture, there’s a tremendous amount of pain, and they did everything they could to alleviate that for him . . . Running on the field when we started batting practice, he jumps in the last group and hits a ball in the bullpen—I was amazed. I’ve dealt with a lot of players over the years who’ve had hamates, and it’s extremely painful.”
Walker finished the game 2-for-5 with a double, a single and the game-winning run.
Of course he did.
For a while, though, the story of the game was Florida ace Hudson Randall, who allowed just two hits and needed just 68 pitches to breeze through the first seven innings. South Carolina freshman Forrest Koumas kept his team in the game, allowing just a run on three hits over 5 2/3 strong innings, but the Gamecocks trailed 1-0 with just six outs remaining. Heading into the eighth, Randall had retired 10 straight and 18 of 19.
In other words, South Carolina had the Gators right where they wanted ’em.
“There is a lot of—not comfort, but a lot of maturity and perspective in the dugout,” Tanner said. “Randall’s out there, he’s cruising. We’ve got no chance, we’re handcuffed, we’re shut down. But we’re only a run behind, and if they get two, we’ve still got the tying run in the on-deck circle. That’s our mentality—you just keep hanging in there.”
Peter Mooney worked a leadoff walk in the eighth and scored on Scott Wingo’s RBI single up the middle with two outs. Wingo, who delivered a walk-off hit against Texas A&M in South Carolina’s CWS opener, provided more heroics in the ninth inning—defensively.
Recall that the Gamecocks had escaped three bases-loaded jams without giving up any runs Friday against Virginia. So when Florida loaded the bases with no outs against John Taylor in the bottom of the ninth Monday, there was no cause for alarm. With South Carolina’s infield drawn in, Tyler Thompson hit a hot-shot up the middle, and Wingo saved the game with a diving stop and throw home—where catcher Robert Beary made a great scoop on a throw in the dirt to get the force out. Then Taylor—who got out of a bases-loaded situation with a 1-2-3 double play against the Cavs last Tuesday—escaped this jam with a 4-2-3 double play to Wingo.
“I don’t expect anything less out of these guys,” Walker said. “This group of guys, defense, offense, everything—they perform in every situation. It’s remarkable.”
The next hero in line was left fielder Jake Williams, who made a strong throw to nab Cody Dent at the plate after Mike Zunino’s single through the left side in the 10th inning. Beary—one of the game’s under-the-radar heroes—fielded the throw in foul ground and reached across to tag Dent out, extending the game and ending the inning. It was Williams’ first outfield assist of the year.
“That’s the best throw he’s made since I’ve known him,” Tanner said. “He does a good job coming to get the ball, and he charged that ball hard. When that ball was hit through the 6-hole there, he did get a great jump, and he was coming home. It was just a matter of whether he could get enough on the throw, and thank goodness he was able to.”
And of course there was Matt Price—as always. After the Gamecocks took the lead in the top of the 11th, they summoned their All-America closer to pitch the bottom of the frame, though he had thrown a season-high 95 pitches in relief Friday and was not expected to be available.
“I was surprised that he was able to be out there, quite honestly,” Tanner said. “He told me right before the game, ‘I’ve surely got an inning in me.’ He said, ‘I feel pretty good.’ I said, ‘Don’t get up until we tell you to get up.’ I didn’t want him down there throwing.
And we got in a situation that it was an important inning. So we put him in there.”
Naturally, the Gators put the leadoff man aboard, as Brian Johnson singled on Price’s first pitch. After a sacrifice bunt, Florida had the tying run at second base with one out, but Price won a nine-pitch battle against Tyler Thompson, striking him out on a high 94 mph fastball. Then he got Daniel Pigott to ground out to end the game.
A man at second base with one out is nothing for the Gamecocks. Price, remember, allowed seven hits and five walks in 5 2/3 innings against Virginia, without giving up a single run.
“It’s remarkable how we always manage to stay loose and stay calm in the dugout,” Walker said. “Even going into the 10th, 11th inning against a team like Florida—we’ve done it all year, and hopefully we’ll continue to do so.”
Nobody is looser or calmer than South Carolina ace lefty Michael Roth, who is already a folk hero in Columbia, just as Price and Wingo are. Though Tanner wouldn’t commit completely to starting Roth on Tuesday, he indicated Roth is likely to start on three days’ rest, with a chance to make South Carolina the first back-to-back champion since Oregon State in 2006-07.
“Bottom line, South Carolina is the defending national champs for a reason,” said Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who will start freshman Karsten Whitson on full rest Tuesday. “They made plays when they needed to. This thing is a long ways from over.”