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|GAME AT A
Point: Florida starter Karsten Whitson breezed through two scoreless innings, striking out three, but Peter Mooney doubled into the left-field corner to start the third, and Whitson’s command suddenly faltered. After two walks, two sacrifices and an error, South Carolina had a 3-0 lead. With Michael Roth on the mound, that lead was very commanding.
OMAHA—For two years, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner has insisted his team is not “imposing” or great” or “formidable” or—as he put it Tuesday night—”awesome.”
It’s time to revise that position.
Maybe the Gamecocks don’t score runs by the truckload or blast towering home runs. Maybe they win a lot of close games in the late innings, and do it in in improbable fashion. But when it comes to the business of winning, nobody is more imposing or great or formidable than South Carolina—which clinched its second consecutive national championship with a dominating 5-2 win against Florida on Tuesday.
“I’d say we’re pretty awesome, yeah,” admitted South Carolina senior second baseman Scott Wingo, the College World Series Most Outstanding Player. “Our talent might not be a bunch of first-rounders, but I think I’d play with these guys more than any other team. We don’t give you one yard . . . and we’re tough to beat.”
So tough, in fact, that the Gamecocks haven’t been beaten in any of their last 16 NCAA tournament games, the longest postseason winning streak of all time. They have not lost in the postseason since their first game at the 2010 CWS; they ran through the losers’ bracket en route to a thrilling national title last year, then extended their CWS winning streak to a record 11 games with an unbeaten run to the 2011 title.
It was the same route Oregon State took to consecutive national titles in 2006-07—a breathless run through the loser’s bracket followed by a 5-0 showing the next year in Omaha. Those ’07 Beavers showed that a supremely confident, fundamentally sound team full of champions can prevail against teams with more talent. South Carolina slammed that message home in 2011, when it opened TD Ameritrade Park Omaha the same way it closed Rosenblatt Stadium—with a Gamecocks championship.
“At the beginning of the year, I said, ‘We finished up the old one; let’s try to open the new one up,’ ” Wingo said. “Coach thought we might not get it, but I’m the type of guy that, I had a feeling we were going to do it. And I kept thinking of the Oregon State team the whole year. I had a feeling we would get back and win this thing, and we did.”
Wingo was a driving force behind this title run. He delivered a walk-off hit in South Carolina’s CWS opener against Texas A&M, then provided a game-tying RBI single in the eighth inning of the Finals opener. His sensational defense bailed out the Gamecocks over and over again in Omaha—most notably Monday against Florida, when he made two great plays to extract South Carolina from a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the ninth.
He came up huge again Tuesday, driving in South Carolina’s first run with a sacrifice fly in the third inning against Karsten Whitson, helping key a three-run rally that put the Gamecocks in command. He added an RBI single over a drawn-in infield in the eighth to give the Gamecocks a three-run cushion.
“We wouldn’t be here where we are today without that guy,” South Carolina ace Michael Roth said of Wingo. “He’s one of the most electric players on this team. I grew up playing with him, and that makes it that much more special. I can’t imagine a better captain, a better second baseman. Whenever a ball’s hit that way, I know he’s got it.”
Roth added to his own South Carolina legend, starting the CWS clincher on three days’ rest for the second consecutive year. In 2010, it was just his second start of the season, and he earned a no-decision with five innings of one-run ball. This time around, he was a first-team All-American making his third start of this CWS—and this time he earned the win, holding the Gators to two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out six. While Whitson—an unsigned first-round pick a year ago—attacked the Gamecocks with a 93-95 mph fastball and an 84-86 slider, 31st-rounder Roth picked Florida apart with a fastball that ranged from 82-88.
Roth, who threw 127 pitches Monday and 342 pitches in three games, lowered his career ERA in the College World Series to 1.17 in 38 1/3 innings—second-lowest all-time among pitchers with at least 30 career innings in Omaha. Only Ohio State’s Steve Arlin (0.96 in 1965-66) has a lower CWS ERA, and Arlin’s name is one of the most famous in College World Series history.
In five years or 50, Roth’s name will be mentioned in the same breath as Arlin’s.
“It’s like the saying goes, ‘History happens here,’ ” Roth said. “We’re in the history books now.”
Matt Price’s name is right there with Roth’s. South Carolina’s fearless closer appeared in all five of his team’s CWS games, going 2-0, 0.00 with two saves in nine innings of work. He worked 1 1/3 perfect innings Tuesday, after working an inning Monday and 5 2/3 taxing innings Friday against Virginia. He got pinch-hitter Ben McMahan to fly out to center field for the final out, setting off a dogpile around Price at the pitcher’s mound.
“It’s been phenomenal, the success that those guys have enjoyed,” Tanner said of Roth and Price. “Michael was starting out in the bullpen, and then becoming a starter. It’s just like they’ve been almost unblemished. Ask me to bring up some days where they didn’t do very well, I’d have to think long and hard, because it seems like every time the chips have been down, they’ve been able to perform.”
Price led another tour de force postseason performance by the South Carolina bullpen, which went 6-0, 0.53 with five saves in 34 innings in the NCAA tournament—without allowing an extra-base hit. Setup man John Taylor, like Price, was a critical figure, appearing in all 12 postseason games and finishing the season with 50 appearances, one shy of the NCAA record.
In a CWS dominated by pitching, South Carolina’s staff was the most dominant, posting a 0.88 ERA in five games, the fourth-lowest team ERA in CWS history and the lowest since 1972.
Sorry, coach Tanner—it doesn’t get more imposing than that.
“We’ve really played some great baseball while we were here, and it’s hard for me to understand it all right now,” Tanner said. “I’ll have to let it sink in a little bit . . .
“Our players, they’ve made it happen between the lines. They made plays. They made pitches. They got big hits. They always felt they had a chance to win. They believed.”
And belief is a powerful thing.