CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The season was over, and their summer had begun, far earlier than they hoped.
Out on the infield, North Carolina’s players piled on top of each other, their spot in the College World Series secured. In South Carolina’s dugout, several players sat on the bench, elbows on knees, staring at the ground, frozen in the disappointing finality that they almost avoided Tuesday afternoon.
Omaha, Neb., will buzz again starting this weekend, whiskey-marinated filet mignons sizzling at The Drover, fans pouring out of the sparkling ballpark downtown, past the bronze sculpture of celebrating players out front and down to the Old Market for a Boulevard Wheat beer or three.
But this summer, for the first time since 2009, college baseball’s grand, eight-team festival along the Missouri River won’t include South Carolina.
The Gamecocks played deep into June the past three years, winning national titles in 2010 and 2011, and finishing second last season. This year, they’ll do what many of their sport’s other teams do — watch from afar, perhaps pondering how close they came.
Maybe this would be easier for them if they wilted Tuesday, if they hadn’t momentarily stunned North Carolina, the NCAA tournament’s top seed, on its home field. Long after Tuesday’s winner-to-Omaha super regional Game 3 ended, after the Gamecocks finally lifted their chins and left the dugout, the number that will follow them all summer remained on Boshamer Stadium’s scoreboard — three errors.
The Gamecocks showed in this drawn-out super regional that they were every bit North Carolina’s equal. The Tar Heels’ 5-4 win Tuesday followed Saturday’s 6-5 victory and Sunday’s 8-0 blowout in USC’s favor.
Tuesday, the Gamecocks led 4-2 in the middle of the sixth inning. They were 12 outs from Omaha, thanks largely to North Carolina center fielder Chaz Frank dropping a routine, two-out fly ball in the fifth, which allowed the inning’s two runs to score, putting USC up 3-2.
Then the Gamecocks’ defense betrayed them, as it did too often in this super regional, and the Tar Heels scored three runs in the sixth and went up 5-4. The Gamecocks committed three errors in each game. Their last, in the sixth inning, was the cruelest of all.
So often, baseball’s thinnest margins separate celebratory dog-piles from silent dugouts. Landon Lassiter led off the sixth with a hard line drive to USC shortstop Joey Pankake. He dove for it — a tough but not impossible play. The ball hit the inside of his glove, then fell to the dirt.
Three batters later, after a Colin Moran triple cut USC’s lead to 4-3, Cody Stubbs flied out to center fielder Tanner English for the first out, with runners at the corners. Skye Bolt broke from first base, tagging up, a potentially risky move. USC coach Chad Holbrook wasn’t surprised. He knew North Carolina liked to apply pressure in these situations. Holbrook prepared English for this scenario. Throw the ball to the cut-off man, Holbrook told him before the game.
English followed orders. The cut-off man, Kyle Martin, is one of USC’s best defenders. He shined at first base during the super regional. But he is not accustomed to throwing from the middle of the infield grass to second base. He tried to nail Bolt, a fast runner. Martin’s throw sailed into center field. Moran scored. Tie game.
“We defended the ball the way it was supposed to be defended,” Holbrook said. “Make two clean throws, and he’s out.”
Instead, later in the inning, North Carolina had the bases loaded with two outs, the score still knotted at four. Senior closer Tyler Webb, usually dominant in the NCAA tournament, replaced setup man Adam Westmoreland. The first Tar Heel who Webb faced was the No. 9 hitter, Parks Jordan. Webb started Jordan 0-2, USC’s tall left-hander crafting yet another Houdini moment.
Jordan took a ball, fouled off a pitch, took two more balls and fouled another pitch. Webb looked for the sign again. Since the beginning of last season, he has been one of USC’s best pitchers, a quiet young man who blossomed this year in a role that requires cold-blooded precision, performing just as well as his predecessor, Omaha legend Matt Price. As Webb stood on the mound, preparing his final pitch to Jordan, he had walked just 31 batters and struck out 118 in 98 1/3 innings since the start of last season.
And then he threw a ball.
“Pretty close,” Webb said afterward, speaking steadily as ever. “But it was probably a ball.”
The Gamecocks had been pushed into these corners before. Entering Tuesday, they were 7-5 since 2010 in NCAA tournament games that they trailed after the sixth inning or later. They were 8-1 in elimination games. They seemed equipped to hit out of a one-run deficit. In their first five games of this tournament, they batted .339, including .329 in two super regional games.
But they never really threatened in the final three innings. They had runners on first and second with two outs in the eighth, and Graham Saiko popped out. Those agonizingly narrow moments in the sixth had doomed them — a line drive popping out of a shortstop’s glove, a ball leaving a sure fielder’s hand and sailing too far over a bag, a closer’s escape pitch that wasn’t.
The totality of these past four seasons will endure. Before 2010, USC hadn’t been to a super regional since 2007. Tuesday was the Gamecocks’ 40th NCAA tournament game since 2010. They won 35. They lost twice last year to the national champion and twice this year to a North Carolina team that is talented and resilient enough to win it all.
But for Holbrook, the immediate sting remains, the sour end to his first season as USC’s coach. USC lost Game 1 to Tar Heels by a run, and made two errors that directly resulted in two runs. Tuesday, USC lost by one again. An error led to a run, and to the start of Holbrook’s summer of wondering what might have been, if not for USC’s miscues.
“It’ll haunt me for a long time,” he said.