Arizona Dethrones Gamecocks
Unlikely heroes lead Wildcats to Finals sweep of South Carolina
See also: Box
|GAME AT A
Point: CWS Most Outstanding Player Robert Refsnyder sparked Arizona's three-run ninth-inning rally with a leadoff single against Matt Price. Three batters later, Brandon Dixon doubled him home to break a 1-1 tie. Two batters after that, Trent Gilbert provided a two-run single to give the Wildcats some breathing room.
Hero: Sophomore righthander James Farris hadn't pitched in a game in 22 days heading into Monday, when Arizona called upon him to start against CWS icon Michael Roth. Farris responded by out-pitching Roth; he allowed just one run on two hits and two walks over 7 2/3 innings, striking out four. He wound up getting a no-decision, but he put the Wildcats in position to win.
Might Have Missed: South Carolina junior first baseman Christian Walker went 1-for-2 to tie two CWS records. His single leading off the ninth moved him into a tie with North Carolina's Dustin Ackley atop the CWS career hits leaderboard (28). That at-bat also tied him with UNC's Chad Flack and Garrett Gore for most career CWS at-bats (73). Walker also scored South Carolina's only run in the seventh, after leading off that frame with a walk.
OMAHA—As two of Arizona's great leaders, Alex Mejia and Robert Refsnyder, posed together for a postgame photo Monday night, Mejia grinned at the photographer and shook his head.
"Brandon Dixon—that's all you need to say," Mejia blurted. "Brandon Dixon! He saved us all."
Arizona's core veterans—led by Mejia, Refsnyder, Kurt Heyer and Konner Wade—might have carried the Wildcats to the CWS Finals, but unlikely heroes such as Dixon led them to Monday's 4-1 win against South Carolina, clinching the fourth national championship in school history, and the first since 1986.
Dixon, a sophomore part-time first baseman, entered the game as a defensive replacement in the sixth inning, when the Wildcats led 1-0. The Gamecocks tied the game in the seventh, and the score remained 1-1 until the ninth, when Dixon doubled down the left-field line against South Carolina closer Matt Price—the all-time wins leader at the CWS.
"Oh, ye of little faith—I was going to pinch-hit for him," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said of Dixon's ninth-inning at-bat. "Man, that righthander is tough. I was going to pinch-hit for him, and coach (Matt) Siegel looked at me and shook his head no. OK, I'll go with the guy's gut. Please forgive me, Brandon—but he obviously came through."
Dixon's double put runners at second and third with one out and knocked Price out of the game. Two batters later, another less-heralded Wildcat provided crucial insurance. Freshman second baseman Trent Gilbert, the No. 9 hitter, lined a two-run single into right field against Tyler Webb to give Arizona its final margin of victory.
"I think it's no secret the juniors, they're the main contributors throughout the season," said Gilbert, a slick defender who carried a .268 average into the final game, but had come up with his share of big hits in the postseason. "But I mean, with me and some of the other younger guys, I think we feel just as confident in those situations."
The two-time defending champion Gamecocks, inevitably, fought back in the bottom of the ninth to make Arizona sweat, and Gilbert had a big hand in stifling their rally. South Carolina loaded the bases with one out against freshman closer Mathew Troupe, and Tanner English hit a line drive up the middle that Gilbert read perfectly. He snared it and lunged toward second base, where he just missed doubling off the baserunner. The next batter, Grayson Greiner, flew out to right to end the game and set off a dogpile around Troupe just behind the mound.
"How many times have we seen Matt Troupe do what he did tonight?" Lopez asked his players later. "Man, that son of a gun can load the bases as quick as any human being I've ever coached . . . But he gets outs, so we're OK."
Lopez has been outspoken during the CWS about his preference to ride his starters as deep into games as possible, but Troupe came up big in both of his relief appearances in Omaha, working a total of four scoreless innings. He entered with a man on third and two outs in the eighth inning Monday and struck out Joey Pankake to end that threat. Then he successfully negotiated that rocky ninth to earn the win.
But James Farris was the big story on the mound for Arizona on Monday, and although he was a weekend starter all season long, he still qualifies as an unlikely hero. The righthander threw just one inning as a freshman last year and entered 2012 with a career ERA of 36.00. He had a solid sophomore year, going 7-3, 4.18 in 99 innings, but his last appearance before Monday came 22 days earlier in regionals. The Wildcats hadn't needed him since because they won their super regional in two games and their CWS bracket in three, bringing Heyer back on five days' rest to win the bracket clincher against Florida State.
Lopez had debated bringing Heyer back again on three days' rest to start Monday's second game of the Finals, especially because South Carolina was planning to start lefthander Michael Roth—whom Lopez later called "a legend." Eventually, he decided that it was wiser to get Heyer an extra day of rest for a potential third game. Lopez reasoned that Farris' intense bullpen sessions would have him ready to go Monday—but he admitted that doubts lingered.
"Against Michael Roth—against Michael Roth," Lopez said, shaking his head. "Listen: someone's going to get mad at me, so go ahead and get mad at me. When I woke up this morning, I went, 'Farris against Roth. We're probably going to be playing on Tuesday.'
"Nothing against James Farris. I've just watched Michael Roth in the postseason and conference games when I get a chance to watch some TV . . . He's just a lefthander with the presence, and knows how to pitch and all the rest. So I was really hoping that Farris would match up with him until we could possibly score a run or two, if it were possible, against Roth."
The Wildcats did scratch out a run against Roth in the third, and again it was freshmen doing the heavy lifting. Freshman first baseman Joseph Maggi led off the third with a double to left, ending a streak of 28 consecutive batters retired by Roth, dating back to Thursday's complete game against Kent State. The next batter, freshman Riley Moore, bunted Maggi to third, and Gilbert drove him in with groundout to second.
That was all the scoring Arizona would do against Roth, who left the mound for the final time in his brilliant career to a standing ovation with two outs in the sixth.
But Farris more than matched Roth, holding the Gamecocks scoreless on one hit through the first six innings. They manufactured a run in the seventh, and Farris wound up taking a no-decision, but the Wildcats could not have asked for more from Farris, who allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out four over 7 2/3 innings.
Underneath the brim of his cap, Farris had written a reminder message to himself that throwing strikes wouldn't hurt him. In this park, if he pounded the zone and let hitters put the ball in play, he would succeed. And that's just what he did, mixing his 88-92 mph fastball and biting 79-82 mph slider around the zone effectively.
"It was exactly what this program needed, and it was exactly what I'd hoped he would do. I'm really happy for him," Lopez said. "Two or three days ago, I pointed out Farris, brought him in front of the group and I said, 'This guy's been passed over twice in the postseason, and he's ready to pitch. He'll get a chance to pitch here before everything's said and done.' And he was pretty marvelous tonight."
A night earlier, Lopez had asked his two veteran leaders—Mejia and Refsnyder—who they thought he should start Monday. Neither of them hesitated: Farris, they said.
"Because I know how hard Farris has worked," explained Refsnyder, who won CWS Most Outstanding Player honors by hitting .476/.542/.762 with two homers and five RBIs. "Farris, honestly, a lot of people thought he wasn't going to be back in the program (this season). He didn't really have the maturity and poise a lot of people look for. But when he came back, he was determined. He started lifting with Kurt, and really motivated himself. I didn't hesitate because I knew Farris would be ready, I knew how hard he's worked."
So maybe Farris and the rest were unlikely heroes to the world. But the men in the Arizona dugout believed in them.
When the on-field celebration had finally died down, Lopez led three players to the interview dais: Gilbert, Dixon and Refsnyder, who clutched the national championship trophy tight. Near the end of the press conference, a reporter asked Refsnyder if he was ever going to let the trophy go.
A few moments later, as Gilbert and Dixon were answering another question, Refsnyder silently picked up the huge trophy and set it down between the two. He gave a satisfied nod, and returned to his seat.