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Juco transfers power South Carolina past Miami
OMAHA--Some labeled South Carolina a favorite in the College World Series because of its pitching depth, power-packed lineup and Omaha experience.
The funny thing is much of that depth and pop comes from some players who had never played at the Division I level before the season started. Coach Ray Tanner always makes sure to stock the Gamecock roster with a handful of junior college transfers because they are further along in their development than the typical freshmen schools often recruit to replenish their rosters.
Five of those JC transfers helped South Carolina take a giant early lead against Miami and then hold on to win Tuesday's elimination game 15-11. Righthander Billy Buckner (Young Harris, Ga., CC) worked seven innings and rang up 10 strikeouts, and righty Zac McCamie (Seminole, Fla., JC) had to enter the game in the ninth to get the final two outs as 15-4 seventh-inning advantage shrunk.
First baseman Steve Pearce (Indian River, Fla., CC) and right fielder Brendan Winn (St. Petersburg, Fla., CC) each homered, and DH Nick Gardiner (San Jose, Calif., CC) added a two-run double. Winn tied a CWS record with five runs scored, and the 25,240 fans at Rosenblatt Stadium set a session record.
"We had to swing the bat because Miami is a great offensive team and needed a quality start from Billy Buckner," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "We were able to score early and got some home runs. Billy was great early and even though he gave up four runs and nine hits, that was really good for seven innings against a good Miami offense."
The South Carolina offensive explosion seemed a continuation of the end of its 15-4 win against Louisiana State on Monday. The Gamecocks failed to score against Cal State Fullerton in the opener and had gone 14 innings with just one run before erupting for 14 over the final three innings of the LSU game. They scored 12 more in the first four innings against Miami, chasing starter Brandon Camardese (four earned runs and three walks in 1 1/3 innings) in the second inning and sending reliever Danny Touchet (seven runs on eight hits in 2 1/3 innings) out of the game in the fourth.
South Carolina became the first team to post back-to-back 15-run games at the CWS since LSU in 1991.
"We've scored some runs the past few days, and that's the key," Tanner said. "We also have good pitching, but the scoring helps. We're capable of swinging the bats, but it's rare that you can do it against teams like Miami and LSU."
It didn't matter than Miami coach Jim Morris improved his defense by moving Ryan Braun to third base in place of Gaby Sanchez, who made two errors Monday in a 7-3 loss to Cal State Fullerton.
"It was tough because we couldn't get anybody out," Morris said. "They were hitting some peas. We gave them some baserunners and they were swinging from their heels like they knew what was coming."
The feel-good outburst helped Landon Powell and Winn end some long dry spells with their power numbers. Powell, who doubled home a run in the third inning, delivered his first extra-base hit since a three-home run game against Georgia on May 23. The senior catcher had just three hits in seven NCAA tournament games coming into the Miami game. Winn's home run was his 19th of the year, but the first since May 22.
"We had kind of been struggling at the end of the season," Winn said. "To turn it on like that, it's real big, real important."
Winn and the other juco transfers chose to attend South Carolina because of the chance to play top-notch college baseball, get a chance to reach the CWS and gain the exposure that could boost their draft stock.
"In the past they've got some great junior college players in here," Winn said. "They told me they had a chance to play right away, and I checked into it and it was true. I knew they lost a couple of guys from last year's team, but there were still some good players here. There were some spots open though and they wanted to fill them with more experienced guys than maybe a freshman."
The ploy worked especially well for Buckner, who was the highest drafted of the South Carolina juco transfers. The Orioles drafted Buckner in the ninth round last year out of Young Harris, but after a year as a Gamecock he went in the second round to the Royals--joining teammate Matt Campbell (first round) and Blackwell (sixth).
Buckner rose to the Friday starter role for South Carolina during the season, but he missed more than a month with mononucleosis before returning for a 2 1/3-inning relief appearance against Wofford on May 19. He enjoyed two solid six-inning stints to finish the season, but wasn't as sharp as he had been early in the year. So Tanner pushed Buckner back to the No. 3 starter for the NCAA tournament, and he lasted just three innings against North Carolina in regionals and didn't need to pitch as South Carolina swept the super-regional from East Carolina.
Buckner needed--and delivered--a strong seven innings against Miami, to help save innings for South Carolina's pitching staff in its journey through the loser's bracket.
"He had good stuff," Tanner said. "That's the stuff he had early in the year before he got sick, and we needed that kind of performance."
South Carolina needs to beat Cal State Fullerton twice in the next two days, starting Wednesday, to advance to the CWS championship series. Tanner mentioned two more JC transfers in McCamie and Jason Fletcher--along with freshman Arik Hempy--as possible starting candidates to start the next game. Then there's national saves leader Chad Blackwell, yet another JC guy, waiting to finish off the close ones.
"Coach Tanner, coach (Jim) Toman and coach (Jerry) Meyers have done a good job in bringing those guys in," Powell said. "The junior college guys are new to our program, but not to college baseball. They get out there in big situations and are not intimidated, not scared."