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Gamecocks force another game

By Will Kimmey
June 23, 2004

OMAHA--Jason Fletcher had started every game he pitched since his freshman year in high school until transferring to South Carolina this year.

The junior righthander made just five starts in this season and served mostly as a middle reliever for the Gamecocks. But coach Ray Tanner told Fletcher late Tuesday night he'd be starting Wednesday against Cal State Fullerton in a must-win game.

Fletcher got past some early jitters, including two first-inning runs, to work six solid innings and combined with closer Chad Blackwell to hold Fullerton hitless for the game's final five innings in a 5-3 win.

"We got a few things going early, then Fletcher and Blackwell just chewed us up," Fullerton coach George Horton said.

South Carolina, which advanced to the championship game in 2002 after losing its first CWS game, forced a third and decisive matchup between the two schools Thursday for the right to play Texas in the final round of the College World Series.

"This was a great college baseball game," Tanner said. "Every play was big. Every pitch made a difference. Our guys battled hard, their guys battled hard. It was an even game but we were able to get a couple more runs."

Cal State Fullerton tied the score at 3 in the bottom of the fourth inning, and the taut, well pitched game remained that way heading into the top of the seventh. Center fielder Davy Gregg led off the inning for South Carolina by dropping a bunt, which Fullerton righthander Mike Martinez adroitly fielded but threw past first baseman P.J. Pilliterre. Gregg advanced to third on the error and scored the go-ahead run on a single by third baseman Bryan Triplett, who drove in Gregg with a two-run homer in the third.

"I was actually trying to bunt it to the second baseman, but he made a spectacular play to get it," Gregg said. "Once I saw it go down the right-field line, I was off to the races."

Blackell came on in the bottom of the inning and allowed just one walk to the 10 batters he faced in a three-inning stint. He raised his NCAA-leading saves total to 20.

"It's a little bit long for a closer to go three innings, but we ran him out there because if you don't win, you don't play," Tanner said.

The bullpen was supposed to be a question mark for Fullerton, but Ryan Schreppel and Vinnie Pestano allowed just one hit combined in 2 2/3 innings in relief of Martinez.

Still, when Martinez left the game trailing, it wasn't a good sign for Fullerton. No Titans reliever has recorded a win since April 18, when Pestano did so against Cal State Northridge. All the other wins in that span have been credited to the starters.

"Martinez and Schreppel and Pestano made enough quality pitches for us to be successful tonight," Horton said. "The quality of our at-bats was no very good."

That's largely because of the work done by Fletcher and Blackwell. It's no big surprise Blackwell came up big; he's been doing it so often this year that he tied Blake Taylor's school record of 37 appearances in a season in the game.

But Fletcher is another story. He made 16 appearances this year at South Carolina and was the Florida junior college pitcher of the year in 2003 at Indian River CC, but never one in Omaha. Never in front of an all-time CWS record of 28,216 fans at Rosenblatt Stadium. It marked the third-highest attendance of any college baseball game ever.

"Sitting down as a little kid and watching this on TV, it's every kid's dream," Fletcher said. "When I found out last night I was starting, I had chill bumps all night, and I called everybody I knew and told them to watch me on TV."

One call he made went to his parents, who drove 26 hours from their home in Fort Myers, Fla., with his little brother, little sister, girlfriend and grandparents in tow. The only problem was his parents had to work Thursday, so they headed home after South Carolina's game Tuesday night. They ended up stopping in Georgia to watch Fletcher's start on TV.

He went 5-1, 3.50 this year mostly in short stints out of the bullpen, and his six innings against Fullerton marked his second-longest outing of the year.

That's impressive considering Fletcher worried if he'd make it out of the first inning after allowing a hit, a walk and two-run double after facing the game's first five batters.

"In the first inning, I couldn't really find the zone," Fletcher said. "I was like 'Oh my gosh, I'm pitching in the College World Series.' Between innings, I knew I had to settle down if I wanted to stay in the game."

Senior catcher Landon Powell helped Fletcher calm down, then the junior allowed just two more hits and walk for the rest of the game, including retiring the last seven batters he faced.

He mixed his fastball, breaking ball and changeup--a pitch he said was more effective against Fullerton that it had been all year because he changed his arm angle to deliver it more over the top, giving the pitch a late drop.

"Jason was fighting me in the dugout and saying, 'Keep me in this game,' but you could see the confidence in his eyes," Powell said.

Tanner said the confidence of winning two straight games should help South Carolina (53-16) heading into Thursday's rematch. Horton's Titans would like to avoid a repeat of last year, when they started 2-0 but lost twice to Stanford and failed to reach the championship series.

Each coach said he might use his game one starter--Jason Windsor for Fullerton and Matt Campbell for South Carolina--but each was considering other options as well.

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