Gamecocks heading back to Omaha!
For those of you not in the know, the college baseball postseason is structured almost identically to March Madness. After conference tournaments end, the powers that be proclaim eight national seeds, eight additional host campuses, and then complete the rest of the field of 64. There are four teams at each host site, seeded 1 -4. This part of the tournament is called the Regionals. It’s a double-elimination tournament, and the winner moves on to the Super Regionals. The Supers are the baseball equivalent of the Sweet 16. This is a best-of-3 series between the winners of two paired Regionals. The Super Regional winners (Elite Eight) then move on to the College World Series (CWS) in Omaha. The CWS is a two week long, double-elimination tournament, slowly whittling down the teams until only the best remain. The two teams left standing play in a best-of-3 series to determine the NCAA D1 Baseball Champions. It’s an honor that few achieve – just making it to Omaha is a huge accomplishment.
The Gamecocks are one of the lucky few. They’ve been to Omaha nine times, and, thanks to a strong showing in both Regional and Super Regional play, are gearing up for their 10th trip to Middle America.
Not that it was an easy ride. The Gamecocks actually hosted the toughest regional in the field, based on average RPI (the NCAA’s system of ranking determined by wins, losses, and strength of schedule). The Columbia regional’s average RPI? 35.25. The next closest was the Nashville regional, with an average RPI of 37.00.
Not that it mattered much to the Gamecocks. They made it through their Regional in three games, defeating Georgia Southern and then Stetson twice. Stetson was a team that had been on the pollsters radars from the beginning of the season, after sweeping Georgia in February. Stetson headed to the Regionals as the #2 seed with a 41-18 record, and an Atlantic Sun Conference title. Georgia Southern, coming off of a Southern Conference Tournament title, played the Gamecocks a little too close for comfort, losing by only a run. Somehow, perhaps through sheer determination or maybe because of the loud and supportive home crowd, the Gamecocks pulled through and won the regional. At this point, most people heaved a sigh of relief. Carolina was set to play the winner of the Clemson regional, UConn. How could a team from the Northeast possibly come to Columbia and challenge the defending national champions? Clearly those with this viewpoint are not nearly as obsessive about college baseball as I am.
UConn was the #2 seed in the Clemson regional, with a 41-17-1 record. The Huskies made it to the semifinals of the Big East tournament, being eliminated by eventual tournament winner Seton Hall. They had two players taken in the first round of the MLB draft, one was the #11 pick, and the other was #19. They had 10 players drafted overall. After losing the opening game of the Regional to Coastal Carolina, they cruised through the rest of their games, defeating Clemson 14-1 to win the Regional. This team was going to be tough. They have outstanding pitching, solid fielding, and, as demonstrated by the 14 runs scored against Clemson in one game, pretty lively bats. Plus, they were determined to be the first team from the Northeast to make it to Omaha since Maine did so in the mid-80s. I don’t know about the rest of Gamecock Nation, but I was definitely more than a little nervous going into Saturday night’s contest.
Turns out that I didn’t need to worry. Michael Roth came out and did exactly what we’ve become accustomed to him doing. He threw a solid game, striking out only one, but that one happened to be UConn’s #11 draft pick. Roth went 8.1 innings, allowing only 1 unearned run, and actually lowered his ERA to 1.02. John Taylor came in to relieve Roth, threw 6 pitches, and secured the win for the Gamecocks. On the offensive side, both Scott Wingo and Evan Marzilli went 2-5, and Steven Neff went 2-4. The bats were loud and solid, as Carolina cruised through game one, winning 5-1. In my opinion, UConn looked a little rattled at times, but I am 98% sure that’s because of how loud Carolina Stadium was. The sellout crowd never stopped cheering (or jeering, depending on the call). Even the TV announcers commented on how unbelievable the crowd was, especially noting the well-deserved standing ovation for Michael Roth as he exited the game.
UConn seemed a little bit more prepared to handle both the crowd noise and the Gamecocks in Sunday’s game. After putting up two runs in the second inning on four consecutive hits, UConn appeared to have the game in hand. Thanks to some superb defense from centerfielder George Springer (there is a reason that he was the #11 draft pick. Kid is AMAZING), the Gamecocks looked pretty anemic on offense, despite scoring a run in the 4th on a Jake Williams double. I was pacing around the living room, hoping that somehow, the Gamecocks would dig deep and find a way to overcome the one-run deficit. UConn was looking sharp, and losing by one run certainly wasn’t out of the question. Until Christian Walker, the hero of last year’s Super Regional, stepped to the plate. He launched a home run over the left field wall in the 8th to put Carolina on top for good. But a one-run lead isn’t much in college baseball. Carolina brought in dramatic closer Matt Price to keep the Huskies at bay. Price struck out 4 batters in 2 innings and earned his 18th save, as the Gamecocks went on to score five insurance runs in the 9th. After the last UConn batter struck out in the 9th, the Gamecocks stormed the field and dog piled on top of Price to celebrate their return to Omaha. In the words of Gamecock radio announcer Andy Demetra, “You can still kiss the ring.”
You can hear the final call of the game from Carolina radio announcers Andy Demetra and Tommy Moody here.