See also: Box
|GAME AT A GLANCE|
|Turning Point: In a game where the strike zone was one of the major storylines throughout, it is fitting that walks played a huge role in South Carolina’s game-winning rally. With the game tied 2-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Joey Pankake and Evan Marzilli drew back-to-back one-out walks against Colby Suggs, and Pankake scored what proved to be the winning run three batters later on Adam Matthews’ bases-loaded walk. That came on a 3-and-2 pitch on which Matthews checked his swing.
The Hero: South Carolina relievers Tyler Webb and Matt Price will have to share this one. After starter Colby Holmes was chased in the third, Webb and Price combined to work seven innings of three-hit, shutout relief, striking out eight and walking two. Webb worked four innings to allow South Carolina to tie it, and Price threw the final three to earn his CWS record fifth career win and extend his CWS record by finishing his 11th game. “They were pounding the zone,” Arkansas third baseman Matt Reynolds said of the two relievers. “Tyler Webb had a real sneaky fastball, and he can move it around the plate. He didn’t really have his offspeed working tonight, but we had that thought in the back of our head. And Price just did what he always does—just found the zone and throws a good slider.”
You Might Have Missed: Scoring—because there wasn’t much of it to see. When these two teams met for three games in Fayetteville in early May, they combined for 44 runs. But in three meetings in Omaha, they combined for just 10 runs.
OMAHA—As Tyler Webb sat on the postgame interview dais and answered a reporter’s question, the entire room strained to hear him. Matt Price, sitting to his left, sprung into action, moving the microphone closer. The audio improved, and Price gave a wry smile and a nod.
It was a veteran move by Price, who has spent his share of time addressing media at the College World Series. When you are the most accomplished closer in the history of the CWS, you’d better know how to handle press conferences.
Just as teammate Michael Roth has an unrivaled track record among CWS starters, Price has proven that he is the cream of the crop when it comes to relievers who have pitched in Omaha. (This South Carolina core attracts superlatives like it collects national titles.) Price’s latest dazzling performance: striking out five over three scoreless innings of one-hit ball to earn the win in South Carolina’s 3-2 win against Arkansas, propelling the Gamecocks to the CWS Finals for the third straight year. For the second time in that span, they did it by running through the loser’s bracket. In the best-of-three Finals that begin Sunday night, they’ll face an Arizona team that went undefeated in its bracket.
It was Price’s fifth career win in Omaha, putting him alone atop the all-time leaderboard (he had shared the record with Roth and nine others).
“Speechless,” Price said, when a reporter told him about the record. But where Roth would have left his answer at that, Price continued. “I know how many great pitchers have been through the College World Series. And even though I’ve been coming out of the bullpen probably vulturing some wins, I guess you could say, just giving our team a chance to win is what matters to me most.”
Price is the only one who would use the word “vulture” to describe his victories, which have been uniformly hard-fought and earned. In 24 2/3 career innings in Omaha, Price has allowed just one run, for a 0.36 career CWS ERA (third-lowest among all pitchers with at least 20 innings). He is riding an 18 2/3-inning scoreless streak. He has 33 strikeouts, and has allowed just one extra-base hit.
The numbers are enough to render anyone speechless.
So when South Carolina called upon Price in a 2-2 game in the seventh inning Friday, in a do-or-die College World Series game with a trip to the Finals on the line, every Gamecock fan surely believed victory was somehow imminent. The players clearly draw confidence by knowing they have the best big-game closer in the country looming in close games.
“Matt’s a great pitcher, and I think the whole country has seen what he’s capable of doing in big-time situations and the big stage, especially here in Omaha,” South Carolina senior Adam Matthews said. “He’s done a great job keeping us in the game and giving us a chance to win. And fortunately we get a couple of runs like we did today, and we still have Matt out there just to compete and battle for us.”
The Gamecocks fell behind 1-0 in the first and were in danger of falling into a deeper hole in the third, when Webb replaced starter Colby Holmes with no outs and men on second and third. Webb, a junior lefthander, had entered in a similar situation in the first of three CWS meetings between these teams on Monday, taking over for Holmes in the fourth inning and then firing 5 1/3 innings of two-hit, shutout relief, though the Hogs held on to win that game.
This time around, he minimized the damage in the third, limiting Arkansas to one more run on a sacrifice fly, with help from a beautiful sliding catch near the line by Matthews. Webb went on to deliver four innings of two-hit, shutout relief to keep the game close.
“I just tried to play damage control there,” Webb said. “And once we got out of that, with the great catch by Adam and everything, I just tried to pound the strike zone and get it to Matt.”
The Gamecocks know if they can keep the game close until the last third of the game, Price gives them the edge. Webb’s brilliant relief work made that possible, and the Gamecocks tied it with two runs in the fifth. That rally included three walks and two singles against D.J. Baxendale, who issued a career-high five walks and struck out just two before exiting in the fifth.
Home plate umpire Perry Costello’s amorphous strike zone had fans of both teams in an uproar on Twitter throughout the game, and his erratic zone became a major storyline in the later innings. Arkansas pitching wound up issuing nine walks, including three more in the seventh inning to force in the winning run. Though Costello also blew a call at the plate that cost South Carolina a run, the Gamecocks issued just two walks, and ESPN’s K-Zone technology showed that Price received a few generous third strike calls in the last three innings.
When a reporter asked Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn for a comment on the umpiring, he responded, “I would love to, but I can’t. Sorry.”
But he maintained his players did not let their frustration with the umpires affect them. “I thought they did a great job trying to battle through it, to be honest with you,” he said.
The final walk was drawn by Matthews with the bases loaded in the seventh. It was his third at-bat with the bases loaded in the game—he had grounded into a double play in the first and struck out in the fifth. But this time, he worked the count full, then checked his swing on a Barrett Astin slider on the outside corner to draw ball four.
When asked what was going through his mind heading into that at-bat, Matthews was coy: “‘Honestly, I’d better do something or I’m never going to be able to live in Columbia again.’ I was telling Coach (Ray) Tanner before we came in, ‘I left a small village of those guys on base here in Omaha.’ “
It was the second major contribution of the game for Matthews, who came into the game hitting .238/.317/.336. Coaches typically get more attention when they shuffle their lineup, but Tanner’s decision to stick with Matthews throughout his struggles has paid dividends.
“He wanted to do well for this team, and he just kept grinding it out,” Tanner said. “I kept telling him, ‘You’re gonna play. We’re winning enough games, I don’t have to sit you down.’ Sometimes you have to sit guys down when you’re not winning, you’ve got to make some adjustments. But (I told him), ‘You just keep playing, and you’re going to help us along the way.’
“Down the stretch, regionals, he started making a key contribution. And although his numbers aren’t great, he’s hitting in the five-spot . . . He has a bad at-bat, he comes out and makes a play, down in the corner there—great play.”
Of course, Tanner did pull the trigger on a midseason adjustment that had the biggest impact of all: moving Price back to the bullpen. The redshirt junior righthander wanted to try his hand in the starting rotation, so the Gamecocks let him spend the first five weeks of the season as a starter. After getting swept by Kentucky in their first Southeastern Conference series, they made the switch, putting Price back in the closer role the following weekend against Florida.
That move gave South Carolina its much ballyhooed mojo back.
“He did fine as a starter, I think he would have won seven or eight games as a starter,” Tanner said. “But we were missing that, that ‘it’ factor at the end of the game. Although we had a couple pretty good guys down there, Matt Price had established himself as good as anybody in the country. We said, ‘Matt, we just don’t think we can be the team we want to be without you at the end of the game. You can decide more than one game a weekend, you might get to decide two, maybe three during the week.’
“He said, ‘If that’s the best thing for the team, that’s what I want to do.’ “
Price has always been there for his teammates—even if it means something as simple as adjusting a microphone.