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|GAME AT A GLANCE|
|Turning Point: A pair of crucial innings—the South Carolina fifth and the Florida seventh—were the story of the game. The Gamecocks failed to capitalize on scoring chances against Florida starter Brian Johnson in each of the first four innings, but they erased a 2-0 deficit with five runs in the fifth, highlighted by Erik Payne’s three-run triple into the right-center-field gap. After getting back within a run, the Gators had a golden chance to tie the game in the seventh, putting the first two men aboard for the top of the order. But after Nolan Fontana’s sacrifice bunt, Tyler Webb replaced Michael Roth and successfully navigated the most dangerous part of Florida’s order, stranding runners on second and third. The Gators did not threaten again.
The Hero: The Gamecocks had stranded seven runners before Payne’s three-run triple in the fifth. That one swing of the bat changed the entire complexion of the game, erasing any frustration South Carolina might have felt from its early wasted opportunities.
You Might Have Missed: Most of Florida’s offensive production came from the bottom third of its lineup, as Justin Shafer, Vickash Ramjit, pinch-hitter Taylor Gushue and Josh Tobias combined to go 7-for-10. The first six hitters in the lineup went a combined 2-for-20, with Preston Tucker providing both hits.
OMAHA—Whatever happens over the next two weeks, Michael Roth and Matt Price secured their indelible College World Series legacies long ago. They came up big again in Saturday’s showdown against Florida, but those performances felt routine. It’s the CWS—Roth and Price are supposed to perform.
But the supporting cast features plenty of new characters this time around, which means a chance for new heroes to carve out their own CWS legacies.
Erik Payne has a long way to go before South Carolina fans think of him the way they think about Scott Wingo and Whit Merrifield and Jackie Bradley Jr., but he took a step in that direction in his first career CWS game. The sophomore DH electrified packed TD Ameritrade Park with a three-run triple into the right-center field gap in the fifth inning, giving South Carolina a lead it would not relinquish. The Gamecocks went on to score five runs in that frame, en route to a convincing 7-3 win against top-ranked Florida.
To win 22 straight NCAA tournament games and 12 straight in the College World Series, as the Gamecocks now have, you need a steady stream of clutch performances from a wide variety of players. Payne is the latest Gamecock to suddenly morph into a better player in the postseason than he was during the regular season.
A reserve infielder who experimented behind the plate this spring, Payne started just two games as a freshman last year. Payne is best-known for his academics: He was presented with the Elite 89 award before the CWS for the player in Omaha with the highest cumulative grade-point average (3.897). Payne has 28 starts as a sophomore, and he has struck out nearly once every three at-bats (30 strikeouts and two walks in 91 at-bats), yet he found himself penciled into the No. 5 hole in South Carolina’s CWS opener against the team it beat in last year’s CWS Finals.
“You can’t tell by numbers, but if you go watch us take BP, he hits them farther than anybody,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said of Payne. “He’s got tremendous power.”
Payne spent some time as the everyday second baseman in the first half of the season, but his playing time became more sporadic in April. He started just one of South Carolina’s first five NCAA tournament games, going 1-for-4 against Oklahoma last Saturday. His last start before that came in the SEC tournament against Florida on May 25.
“You’ve just got to practice and take BP every day like you’re going to be playing,” Payne said. “And you’ve just got to try to stay sharp. You keep on the same routine, and hopefully when you get the opportunity, you’re successful.”
After Payne’s triple, two South Carolina newcomers delivered RBIs in their first CWS action. The next batter, L.B. Dantzler, doubled to dead-center to drive in Payne and chase Florida lefthander Brian Johnson. Two batters later, Chase Vergason singled to center field, driving in Dantzler and giving Roth and the South Carolina bullpen all the support they would need.
Of course, that rally was jump-started by a trio of faces that are very familiar to Omahans. Evan Marzilli led off the fifth with a double to right-center—his second double in as many at-bats. Christian Walker followed with a single, and Adam Matthews walked, loading the bases with no outs for Payne.
“I was trying to keep my hands still and try to stay balanced and work the whole field,” Payne said. “I got a fastball that I could drive, and I split a gap. I was fortunate that it fell.”
Johnson had been walking a tightrope all game, but he was able to strand runners in scoring position each of the first four innings. Preston Tucker’s two-run double—which was misplayed by left fielder Tanner English—gave Florida a 2-0 lead in the third, but the Gamecocks did not get discouraged, and they pounced on Johnson in the fifth.
“When you’re struggling like that in the beginning of the game to get runs across, you have to be patient,” Marzilli said. “Brian’s a great pitcher. You’re not going to score runs off him, chip away with what you’ve got.”
“You’ve got to give our guys credit—they have been consistent,” Tanner said. “They play hard and they keep scrapping . . . And we were able to have a big inning.”
The rest of the story was familiar. Roth rocked the Gators to sleep, turning in a workmanlike 6 1/3 innings of three-run ball. Tyler Webb provided key relief in the seventh, extricating the Gamecocks from a second-and-third, one-out jam against the heart of the order. Price turned in two innings of scoreless relief for his 42nd career save, breaking the SEC record previously held by Georgia’s Joshua Fields.
And Marzilli provided his latest spectacular defensive play, laying out to catch a sinking Daniel Pigott liner in the left-center-field gap to start the eighth.
“That was one of the greatest catches I’ve seen,” Tanner said.
“Off the bat, I didn’t think I was going to get to it,” Marzilli said. “The ball was hit pretty well. But I kept sprinting as hard as I could. On those you don’t know until the last second whether you’re going to get them or not. I kind of laid out and it landed in my glove. It was up there with one of my best ones, I think.”
The Gamecocks took advantage of Florida’s suddenly sloppy play to tack on two more in the ninth, icing their latest College World Series triumph over a Florida team that was widely considered the favorite—just as it was in last year’s Finals, when the Gamecocks were the defending champs.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.