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|GAME AT A
Point: UCLA led 1-0 and was six outs away from forcing a decisive third game of the CWS Finals on Wednesday. But Brady Thomas led off the eighth with a pinch-hit single to center field, and Robert Beary pinch-ran for him. Beary scored the tying run on an error two batters later.
OMAHA—Ray Tanner stood by himself, a few paces off the dirt surrounding home plate, where his players were being introduced one-by-one.
He looked around, trying to process what he was seeing, trying to catch his breath. He shook his head.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he said. “Just a blue-collar team . . . “
He trailed off, and shook his head again.
Tanner’s blue-collar team will be remembered as the final College World Series champion in Rosenblatt Stadium history. South Carolina won its first national title in dramatic fashion Tuesday night, as Whit Merrifield’s walk-off RBI single in the 11th gave the Gamecocks a thrilling 2-1 win against UCLA. It was the first CWS-ending walk-off hit since 2000.
“This is what everyone dreams about. This,” Merrifield said, nodding toward the celebration continuing on the field around him. “It hasn’t sunk in yet what actually just happened. Growing up as a little kid, you dream about getting the big hit to win the World Series. I just can’t believe that happened.”
It was a storybook ending for the Gamecocks (54-16) and for Rosenblatt Stadium, which hosted its 61st and final College World Series. The final CWS game in the venerable ballpark was a true classic.
“The game was special,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “The game was as good as it gets at this level . . . You know, a national championship’s supposed to be played like that.”
Rob Rasmussen battled his way through six scoreless innings for the Bruins, working around six hits and four walks thanks in part to five strikeouts. He left with a 1-0 lead, as the Bruins (51-17) managed to scratch out a run against South Carolina starter Michael Roth in the fifth.
In college baseball’s modern 64-team era, which dates back to 1999, only one team—Oregon State in 2006—has run through the losers’ bracket to win the College World Series. It’s not easy to do, and heroic performances are required to pull it off. South Carolina’s magical ride was chock full of heroes.
There was Roth, the lefthanded specialist who threw a complete-game three-hitter in his first start of the season Friday against Clemson. Roth threw 108 pitches in that one, then came back on three days’ rest and gave South Carolina five strong innings Tuesday, scattering six hits and two walks while striking out three. It was the second-longest outing of his career.
“I was planning on going nine innings again,” quipped Roth, a relative unknown-turned-CWS media darling. “You know, never would I have ever thought that I was going to start a game here in Omaha. But it’s been great . . . It’s a wonderful feeling to be a starting pitcher of the final game (in Rosenblatt).”
There was closer Matt Price, the flame-throwing freshman righthander who threw 130 pitches over three dominating relief outings earlier in the World Series. Three days after he worked 2 1/3 strong innings to earn the win against Clemson that propelled the Gamecocks to the Finals, Price worked 2 2/3 scoreless innings to earn the win Tuesday, allowing just one hit and a walk while striking out three. The Bruins loaded the bases against him in the top of the ninth, but he saved the game by striking out Niko Gallego on a slider low and away, stranding three. Price went 2-0, 0.93 with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 9 2/3 innings over 10 appearances in Omaha.
“Matt Price and the entire bullpen have been very special for us the entire year, and toward the latter part, he’s been sort of the guy that we get on his back there at the end and say, ‘Either keep us alive or win it for us or save it for us,’ ” Tanner said. “And he came up huge again tonight.”
There was Blake Cooper, who carried a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning in the CWS Finals opener on Monday—in his second consecutive start on three days’ rest.
There was Jackie Bradley Jr., the CWS Most Outstanding Player, who kept South Carolina’s season alive with a two-out, two-strike, game-tying RBI single in the 12th inning against Oklahoma on Thursday.
There was Brady Thomas, who delivered the game-winning hit in that 12th inning against Oklahoma. Thomas came up big again Tuesday, delivering a pinch-hit single to lead off the eighth against hard-throwing UCLA reliever Erik Goeddel. Robert Beary pinch-ran for him and scored the tying run on an error by first baseman Dean Espy.
There was second baseman Scott Wingo, a defensive specialist who drew a walk leading off the 11th against UCLA closer Dan Klein, then advanced to second on a passed ball, advanced to third on Evan Marzilli’s sacrifice bunt, then scored the winning run on Merrifield’s sharp single to right.
There was Bayler Teal, the avid 7-year-old Gamecock fan who lost his two-year battle with cancer last week. The Gamecocks had visited him in the hospital, and he even threw out the first pitch of a game in March. The team dedicated its CWS run to Teal, even writing his initials on their hats.
Tanner got emotional when asked about Teal in the postgame news conference, pausing for 15 or so seconds before answering with glassy eyes. Moments earlier, on the field, he had invoked Teal’s name when speaking to the remaining crowd at the end of the championship celebration.
“He’s in a better place now,” Tanner told the crowd. “But I am assured that he’s watching down on us, smiling.”
Teal’s favorite player was Whit Merrifield—the man who delivered the final indelible image in the rich history of Rosenblatt Stadium.
Fans had been waiting for that moment since the ninth inning, as the stadium was illuminated with flashbulbs from all angles on every pitch when the Gamecocks were up. Every pitch had a chance to be the last at Rosenblatt.
“You don’t notice it until you’re in the dugout,” Merrifield said of the flashbulbs. “I came back in and guys were like, ‘Did you not get blinded up there?’ I looked around and saw all the flashbulbs going off. It’s unbelievable.”
Merrifield gave Rosenblatt the picture-perfect ending all those fans were dreaming of. And he gave Rosenblatt the ideal champion for its last hurrah—a gritty, blue-collar bunch that lost its CWS opener to Oklahoma and went on to become the first team in history to win six straight games in a single College World Series, including the final two against a better-rested and heavily favored UCLA team.
“I was sitting out by the third-base line for opening ceremonies with the other teams thinking, ‘What a venue, what an atmosphere, what a history. To be able to come in the last year, to be part of the College World Series and the closing of Rosenblatt,’ ” Tanner said. “And it dawned on me—it would be wonderful to go deep into this thing and be around at the end. And to be able to survive and win the last game is really incredible.
“I know the new stadium will be very special and a great facility. But this is history. And we’ll be a part of the College World Series and Rosenblatt for a long, long time.
“It’s an incredible journey and an incredible ending.”