Tonight, the 2012 baseball campaign either admirably ends or triumphantly continues. We've already notched our third consecutive Final Four (if you'll allow the reference) and in my opinion have exceeded the expectations of a freshman-heavy lineup. Yes, we rested on our pillars--Roth, Price, Walker and Marzilli were all major factors. But Roth enjoyed a slightly less dominant season, as did Price, with his foray into the starting rotation proving to be ill-advised. Yes, Walker was Walker, Marzilli started brilliantly but cooled as the year continued. A trip back to Omaha wasn't out of the question, but were the Gamecocks capable of winning big games? Do the mid-week breakdowns suggest bigger issues? Questions lingered, but the team gathered steam towards the end of the season, nearly taking the SEC after starting a dismal 1-5. After the usual SEC tourney faceplant, the journey to Omaha began.
As we've since learned, the "win anyway" mantra never left, and the Cocks plowed through the Regionals and Supers, and notched a big opening win in Omaha before finally falling in a close one to Arkansas. Ensuing consecutive wins have put us in a play-in game for the finals for the third consecutive year.
We'll face Ryne Stadnek, the same Arkansas hurler who shut down the Cocks five nights ago. Update: We'll be facing DJ Baxendale tonight.
Before we set our sights on the game tonight, let's take a moment to appreciate the late winning streak, a record that seems pretty damned unbreakable. I looked back at the 22-game postseason stretch and compiled a list of 12 standout moments from that magical streak. We start with a swing of the bat that was arguably the closest the streak ever came to ending…before it ever began.
Continue reading after jump!
1. JBJ's Life Support RBI
This wasn't the first game of the streak--you'll remember it began with a drubbing and consequent dispatch of top seed Arizona State. We moved on to face Oklahoma for a second time, confronting our demons and nearly succumbing to them for the second time in three games. The game went into extras and the Cocks allowed a solo HR in the top of the 12th. Now, say it with me: "Down to our last strike," present-day minor league stud (newly promoted to AA) Jackie Bradley Jr. popped a single throughout the ride side to tie the game. A walk later, Bradley was in scoring position. Finally, Brady Thomas (0-5 for the night at that point) singled in Bradley for the win, and the dream was kept alive. We'd need to string together a few more wins to get a shot at the trophy. Little did we know…
2. Meet Michael Roth
Many an eyebrow was raised when Ray Tanner announced a back-end bullpen grunt named Michael Roth would get the ball against Clemson. But we watched as Roth picked apart a powerful Clemson line-up, scattering three hits and a run over a full nine innings and a modest 108 pitches. Michael Roth had arrived, and for the next two years, he'd stand shoulder to shoulder with Marcus Lattimore as the most celebrated athlete on campus. And it all started with a shutdown start against the Tigers.
3. Walker's Stop
Unfortunately, the minutia of the 2010 games are a bit blurry to me now. I'm likely overlooking a number of important plays that squashed rallies or kept ours alive. One that I'll always remember is Christian Walker's stop on a sharp Jeff Schaus grounder to first that sealed our ouster of Clemson in 2010. The Tigers had scored one run in each of the seventh and eighth innings, so entering the ninth, fans confidence was a bit shaky. Matt Price succeeded in retiring the first two batters of the inning in domineering fashion (strikeout, groundout on an 0-2 pitch). But a base hit brought the go-ahead run to the plate. Schaus, the 3-hitter who already had an RBI no the day, stepped in. By the way, the infamous Kyle Parker was on deck, no doubt licking his chops at a chance to avenge his squad's loss on the gridiron. And it looked like Parker might get his chance. Schaus swung at the first pitch from Price, lacing a grounder that had "seeing-eye single" written all over it. But Walker made the stab, stomped on first base, and effectively sent the Tigers packing. With two elimination-game wins over Clemson, it was 2002 all over again.
4. Blake's Gem
Remember how ESPN was ready to etch "UCLA" into the trophy before the first pitch was thrown on June 28, 2010. Multiple highlight packages documenting the heavily favored Bruins' 40,000 national championships rolled throughout the broadcast. Gerrit Cole, the top-tier pitching prospect and anointed golden child of college baseball, was primed to tear through the Gamecock line-up. Didn't exactly go that way. USC led 5-0 after three, 6-0 after five, and 7-0 after eight. Our bats were alive, but Blake Cooper's arm was the real story. The workhorse pitched an absolute gem, going eight innings and allowing one run on three hits. He was chased in the ninth without recording an out, finally running out of gas after 136(!) pitches. Wily submariner John Taylor came in and quickly induced a double play--a run scored, which was attributed to Cooper, but it was a minor blemish. Two pitches later, a flyout put the Gamecocks one win away from a National Championship.
5. Whit's Walkoff
Has there ever been a more excruciating game? Perhaps the Florida game one year later would eclipse it, but any game with a combined 24 players left on base will take years off your life. Always one to go with the hot hand, Ray Tanner gave Michael Roth the start. Roth was good but not great, going 5 innings and allowing a run on six hits. We'd need four strong innings out of the pen--at least we thought we would. Meanwhile, clutch hitting was nowhere to be found. We left a runner on base in each of the first 8 innings, only managing to tie the game on an error in the 8th (remember the UCLA first baseman punching the dugout?) Matt Price took the mound in the ninth, getting the Gamecocks out of a bases loaded jam with a triumphant strikeout. I'll never forget the feeling when I saw Wingo walk to lead off the 11th. Then when he took 2nd on the pass ball. Then to third on Marzilli's sac bunt. Then, Whit Merrifield stepped up to the plate, and the rest is history:
SOUTH CAROLINA wins 2010 COLLEGE WORLD SERIES! (via SpinTellyCH9)
6. Wingo's Walk-off
After a relatively undramatic regional and super-regional run, the Gamecocks returned to Omaha as the #4 overall seed. The early draw against Texas A&M seemed favorable, but Cocks fans were already preparing for another stressful, fending-off-elimination CWS experience after A&M plated four in the top half of the first. But the Gamecocks countered with four runs of their own, and that's when the pitchers settled in. The 8 runs totaled in the first would be followed by a whopping zero over the next seven innings. Roth pitched a gem if you don't count that first frame, going 7.1 innings, fanning eight and giving up only two additional hits. But we picked up where we left off against UCLA, leaving runners on in key positions. (It should be noted that the 10 LOB looks worse than it was--keep reading.) In the ninth inning with the score tied, we finally broke through. A lead-off double followed by a single from the newly-healthy Jackie Bradley Jr. put runners on the corners with no outs. After pitching around Marzilli to load the bases, Scott Wingo coolly powered one off the right field wall. It'll go down as a single, but it was nearly a walk-off grand slam and would have been at least a double. Just goes to show, when you load the bases with no outs, good things happen. Right?
7. Bases Loaded, No Outs, Pt. 1: In Price We Trust
Virginia was this 2011's UCLA--stacked with pitching, considered virtually untouchable. But just like UCLA in 2010p, the Cocks just shrugged at the pundits and whipped the #1 overall in their first meeting. Virginia dispatched an inspiring California team in the losers bracket, setting up a rematch with South Carolina. Michael Roth did his thing, tossing seven strong and giving up one run. The Cocks were up 2-1 when John Taylor entered in the eighth, but poor fielding to the tune of two errors allowed Virginia to tie it. Carolina loaded the bases with one out in the eighth, but back-to-back strikeouts snuffed out the rally. Extras was in the cards, and in the 13th inning, the Wahoos loaded them up with no one on. Mind you, Matt Price was up over four innings now. But Ray Tanner believed in his big closer, and Price rewarded that belief. Price strike out lead-off hitter Chris Taylor on a 2-2 count, and then a miraculous 4-6 line out double-play got the Gamecocks out of a bases loaded, no outs jam. We'd push the winning run across in the next inning, thanks to a two-error frame of Virginia's own. Once again, the Cocks had sent the #1 overall home. And once again, the Cocks were in the finals.
8. Bases Loaded, No Outs, Pt. 2: Do Not Pass Wingo, Do Not Collect a CWS Trophy
You know what's more stressful than your team loading the bases with no outs? When they do it as the visiting team. Such was the case against Florida. The game was a pitcher's duel, with young Florida hurler Hudson Randall utterly silencing the Cocks bats. Florida wasn't faring much better, but the way Hudson was dealing, it would seem that the one run they scratched across in the third was all they'd need. But a hard-nosed 8th inning tied it for the Cocks, as 2011CWS hero Scott Wingo came through with a huge two out, two strike single. But the Wingo theatrics were far from over. Florida would load the bases in the ninth, leaving the Gamecocks with no option but to pull in the infield. Miraculously, John Taylor induced consecutive ground balls. The first was a chopper to the right of Scott Wingo, which looked like a surefire game winner. But Wingo shot horizontally to his left, using every inch of his <6 foot frame to nab the chopper, sprung to his cleats and fired home. The throw was poor, and required catcher Robert Beary to make an difficult backhand scoop, one you wouldn't have been surprised to see skip away. It was a breathtaking play, but the Cocks were hardly out of the woods. But two pitches later, Daniel Pigott chopped a grounder to--who else--Wingo, and the ensuing 4-2-3 double play (albeit a questionable call at first) kept the game alive. The very next inning, Florida would threaten again…
9. Jake's Laser
After the Gamecocks made nothing of two 10th inning hits, Florida seemed intent on ending it this time. With Taylor still on the mound, he gave up a lead-off single. The runner moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. After a flyout, Taylor intentionally walked three-hitter Preston Tucker to bring up Mike Zunino, one of Florida's best hitters last year and perhaps the nation's best in 2012. True to form, Zunino ripped a strong single to left field. Jake Williams--known not for his arm--fielded and fired. Despite the flashy heading of this entry, the throw was no laser--more like a mortar arc--but it was good enough for Robert Beary to pull it in, then lunge towards baserunner Cody Dent to apply the tag. It wasn't close. The Gamecocks finally pushed a run across in somewhat similar fashion to the way they did against Virginia a few days before, by capitalizing on throwing errors. Price shut the door in the ninth. Game two was, thankfully, fairly one-sided and the Cocks would celebrate once again.
Relive moments 8 and 9 with me, won't you?
Highlights: Game 1 College World Series Championship - South Carolina vs. Florida (via GamecocksOnline)
10. Bases Loaded, No Outs Pt. 3: Interference
Because the 2010 Regional/Super Regional predated the streak (sorry, Christian) and the 2011 pre-CWS postseason was fairly uneventful, these next two stand as the only entries that didn't take place in Omaha. It was only the second inning when Clemson jacked the sacks. Catcher Spencer Kieboom grounded into what looked like a 6-4-3 double play. The Cocks would have to surrender a run, but it's certainly worth it given the situation. However, Phil Pohl was instructed by the umpires to return to third base. Jay Baum was called for interference, which means no runs can score. I was following on Twitter at the time and was, of course, a bit skeptical. But when I watched the replay, it seemed like a no-brainer. Most of the unbiased parties following the game agreed that it was an unusual call, but the correct call. Brad Felder would fly out to end the inning. Clemson fans will crow about this one for years, but they should be crowing at Jay Baum, who clearly made a second effort to throw his arms out in front of Chase Vergason. It's bad baseball, and they paid for it.
11. LB's Launch
You've got to imagine LB Dantzler had Reptar on the mind when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 12th. The Cocks were lucky to still be in this one, necessitating a run in the 8th and 9th to knot the game at 4--good thing Clemson choked in the 2nd inning or it wouldn't have been enough. Dantzler was set up nicely: one out, runners on the corners, but Clemson was still a ground ball from getting out of this. Thankfully, the ball Dantzler hit would need about four seconds to touch any ground at all. Reminiscent of Wingo's walk-off against TAMU in 2011, it was clear the game was over as soon as the ball left the bat. Felder in right field was playing in to hold the runner, and had no chance to track down the blast. The Gamecocks would go on to eliminate the Tigers, and advance to the Supers.
12. Gator Slaughter
There's a sort of eerie symmetry in the fact that this momentous streak was bookended but wins over top seeds. Only two top seeded teams have ever gone 0-2 in the CWS, and it's no coincidence that both were due in part to crossing paths with the Yardcocks. After rolling the Sooners in Columbia to the tune of a cumulative 10-1 two-game sweep, the Cocks would, for the third consecutive year, face the #1 overall seed in Omaha. The Cocks fell behind early after Tanner English broke in a fly ball (c'mon, Tanner, that's little league stuff!) and allowed a two run double--two runs that will show up as earned, but probably shouldn't be. Michael Roth's performance was sturdy if not dominant, allowing seven hits, three walks, one HBP and three runs over 6.1 innings. But the Gamecock bats racked up 12 hits, including five players with multi-hit games. The biggest hit was Eric Payne's bases clearing triple with no-outs in the fifth, stoking a five run outburst that was all we'd need (but not all we'd get.) Tyler Webb and Matt Price kept Florida at bay. Webb notched a key out in the 7th, when Florida loaded the bases with two outs, and Florida starting pitcher/DH stepped to the plate, looking for a little redemption. And he absolutely laced one to right field--it looked like a two-run single off the bat. But Adam Matthews had him played perfectly, and made the out look easy. We plated two more in the top half of the ninth, when Florida decided a Benny Hill sketch would be more interesting than trying to maintain the three run deficit. A couple of Florida hits in the ninth amounted to nothing, and the Gamecocks won their 22nd consecutive playoff game.
And then it was over.
We all knew it had to end sometime, and it wasn't a poorly played game. Arkansas ace Ryne Stanek shut down the Yardcocks, allowing three hits in six innings of work. USC left seven runners on the bags, and could only muster a single baserunner in the final three innings.
Again, we face Arkansas
and Stanek again tonight, after proving last night that we can win without Roth on the mound and without much rest. We may win, we may lose--but lord knows we'll be confident and motivated, players and fans alike. That's what 22 postseason wins over three calendar years and two championships does for a program.
What'd I miss, folks?