CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Elimination loomed yet again Sunday afternoon, the possibility of a long, regretful summer very real. One of college baseball’s most talented teams had pushed South Carolina to the edge, a familiar place for the Gamecocks on the sport’s grandest stages.
And yet again, they refused to go home on their opponent’s terms. This stubborn USC program was impressively obstinate when it mattered most, and now the Gamecocks get one more chance to do something they’ve turned into art form in recent years. Today, they get one more chance to save their season.
They buried North Carolina early Sunday, scoring five runs in the second inning and cruising to an 8-0 victory in Game 2 of their NCAA tournament super regional. North Carolina, the tournament’s top seed, hadn’t lost this badly all season, and hasn’t lost back-to-back games in 2013.
But few teams have pushed USC off elimination’s edge recently. USC is now 8-1 in NCAA tournament elimination games since 2010, with four wins in the 2010 College World Series and three last year, when Arizona beat USC two games to none in the finals at Omaha, Neb.
“We’ve got a bunch of bulldogs on the team,” said Jordan Montgomery, whose complete game four-hitter Sunday preserved USC’s bullpen for today’s winner-take-all Game 3 (7 p.m., ESPN2).
Even from here, among central North Carolina’s pines, the Gamecocks can see their fourth straight Omaha trip, unprecedented in their history.
But getting past today will require some rare feats. The Gamecocks are 1-4 all-time in super regional Game 3s. Before this weekend, they had lost the opening game of a regional or super regional four times. They advanced in one of those rounds — the 1977 regional in Columbia. In the NCAA tournament’s super regional format, which began in 1999, the Game 1 winner has advanced 77 percent of the time, according to ESPN.
North Carolina today will turn to its least reliable starter, sophomore right-hander Benton Moss (8-1, 3.78 ERA), who has allowed 22 combined hits and 12 runs in his past three starts. USC counters with freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop (7-3, 2.92), and setup reliever Adam Westmoreland and closer Tyler Webb ready to throw early and deep if needed.
For the second straight game Sunday, USC hammered an elite North Carolina starter. Kent Emanuel lasted just 21/3 innings Saturday, but North Carolina won 6-5 partly because USC hit just 3 for 17 with runners in scoring position.
In Sunday’s second inning alone, USC went 3 for 6 with runners in scoring position. North Carolina junior starter Hobbs Johnson, a 14th-round Major League Baseball draft pick, had the worst outing of his career — five hits and five runs in 12/3 innings.
Max Schrock’s leadoff double in the second was important. But so was Kyle Martin’s less sexy one-out walk two batters later. Martin, who rarely chases bad pitches, fell behind 0-2, worked back to 2-2, fouled off four straight pitches and took two balls. Instead of having Schrock at third and two outs, USC had runners at the corners and one out.
After Tanner English’s bunt single put USC up 1-0, Martin scored on Joey Pankake’s two-out, two-run double. Pankake saw a difficult inside slider, turned on it and barely snuck it inside the left-field line. Johnson left a 1-2 pitch up to the next hitter, LB Dantzler, who feasts on balls up in the strike zone. Dantzler turned it into a two-run single and a 5-0 USC lead.
“Crushing,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said of Dantzler’s hit.
Not that Montgomery needed much cushion. A USC pitcher hadn’t thrown a shutout in the NCAA tournament since Chris Hernandez’s five-hitter in the 2003 regional opener against East Carolina. North Carolina hadn’t been shut out in 96 games, since last April. In four NCAA tournament starts, Montgomery has allowed two runs in 302/3 innings — a 0.59 ERA.
All week, pitching coach Jerry Meyers and Montgomery schemed to throw inside fastballs to the Tar Heels, whose lineup Sunday comprised seven .300-plus hitters. Montgomery complemented inside heat with his vicious off-speed pitches on the outer half of the plate. Montgomery struck out just three batters, to one walk, but 71 of his 121 pitches were strikes.
“He can change speeds, he throws strikes and he throws to both sides of the plate,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “That’s tough on hitters.”
Never has North Carolina had it so tough this season. Before Sunday, the Tar Heels had lost by three, four and six runs, and six times by one run, including three times in 11 innings.
“They don’t like to lose and they take it personal,” Fox said.
Holbrook tried to manage his players’ psyches after Saturday’s loss, hoping they would recover and respond. Aboard the team bus, he told them, “Hey, tough one to swallow. When you get off the bus, forget it. Our season is not over. We have 18 innings left in us.”
Nine remain now, at least. No appeals to pride will be needed today, no theatrical motivational speeches. Omaha is enough of a carrot, and here it is yet again for the Gamecocks, for the taking.