CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—At the beginning of the season, Tanner English looked like a strong bet to become one of South Carolina’s main offensive catalysts.
The sophomore center fielder needed to cut down on his strikeouts, but his game-changing speed gave him a chance to be a disruptive table-setter. But then came the injuries—to his nose, right shoulder and pectoral muscle—that bothered him throughout the season. He had to refrain from switch-hitting, though he picked it up again around the time of the Columbia Regional, then had to return to batting exclusively righthanded for super regional play.
His offensive production suffered with his injuries. English has stuck in center field but has struggled at the plate, his batting average hovering around .270 and his strikeouts more than double his walks.
But on Sunday, English played the role of sparkplug for the Gamecocks, helping lead them to a decisive 8-0 win against North Carolina in the second game of the Chapel Hill Super Regional.
In the second inning, with freshman second baseman Max Schrock on third and sophomore first baseman Kyle Martin on first, English pushed a bunt down the first-base line. Schrock scored easily, but English hustled down the line and beat the flip to first to turn the safety squeeze into an infield hit.
With runners on first and second and one out, rather than two, the situation was considerably more dangerous for North Carolina junior lefthander Hobbs Johnson. A sacrifice fly from junior Graham Saiko advanced English and junior first baseman Kyle Martin, and a sharp double down the left-field line by sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake drove the two in. A two-run single by senior first baseman L.B. Dantzler lengthened the South Carolina lead to 5-0.
“You don’t see too many kids who can run like that and get down the line from the right side,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said of English’s bunt.
English was right in the middle of another Gamecocks rally in the fifth, when he beat out a bouncer in the six-hole, stole second, stole third, then scored on a sacrifice fly to right. South Carolina would get another run on an error by junior third baseman Colin Moran to lengthen the lead to 8-0.
Though South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said English still tightens up when given a green light on the basepaths, he made a point to praise the center fielder’s pure speed.
“He’s not a gifted baserunner yet,” Holbrook said. “He will be in time, but boy, he can really, really run. He’s one of the fastest kids, if not the fastest kid, I’ve ever coached.”
All the runs South Carolina needed came from English’s squeeze, because sophomore lefthander Jordan Montgomery threw a complete-game shutout and held the Tar Heels’ formidable offense to just four hits.
Montgomery had to work much of the game with runners on base—three courtesy of errors by Schrock, who Holbrook said is “tighter than a banjo string”—but never allowed any North Carolina runners to score.
“He’s an unflappable kid,” Holbrook said.
The hardest-hit ball Montgomery allowed during the game came in the top of the ninth, when North Carolina freshman right fielder Skye Bolt crushed a ball deep into the left-center gap.
English, though, had one more statement to make. He lowered his head, started to sprint and looked up to realize that he had a chance to make a catch. He fully extended, picking up plenty of grass stains during his dive, and came up with the ball in his glove. Montgomery easily retired the next two hitters to give the Gamecocks the win and even the series.
South Carolina regained the momentum in the series with Sunday’s convincing win, but Holbrook echoed the baseball maxim that momentum “is as good as your next pitcher.” The Gamecocks will start freshman Jack Wynkoop—another lefty—and the Tar Heels will go with sophomore Benton Moss on Monday at 7 p.m. ET. The winner will face North Carolina State in Omaha.