Two For The Show
OMAHA, Neb. -- Realistically speaking, South Carolina and athletic championships have not historically been synonymous.
"I'm aware of that," Gamecocks baseball coach Ray Tanner said, clipping his comment before saying anything more about the school's history of widespread mediocrity.
That in mind, the team has put itself in rarified air at the College World Series.
The Gamecocks (52-16) begin a best-of-three series tonight (7:30 p.m., ESPN) against UCLA (51-15). The first one to two wins goes home with a trophy.
"I would like, very much, for our university to experience that," Tanner said. "I think that would be one of the greatest things that could happen."
South Carolina has been in this position three times previously.
The Gamecocks were 51-6 in 1975, but lost 5-1 to Texas in the final. Arizona State won a 2-1 game in the 1977 championship. Texas took advantage of a tired USC pitching staff in 2002, routing the Gamecocks 12-6 in the final.
The following year, the NCAA adopted a best-of-three series, also incorporating a Sunday off day, to allow for a truer method of determining a champion.
Coming through the losers' bracket, like in 2002, Tanner was pleased this time to be greeted by some rest and a three-game set.
"I think it's the right way to do it," Tanner said. "Two teams left, best-of-three. You get a variety of pitchers out there in the games, whether it's a two-game or three-game set. We're all used to the series mentality."
The particular problem for the Gamecocks, whether it's a game or 100, is UCLA's pitching.
The Bruins' power arms, a key reason why teams are hitting .195 against them in the CWS, are built to win series like this one.
Gerrit Cole, Rob Rasmussen and Trevor Bauer, whom the Gamecocks will all likely see this week, are a combined 34-9 with a 3.05 ERA and 439 strikeouts in 350 2/3 innings.
Cole, a right-hander who turned down first-round money to attend UCLA, is up first for South Carolina's hitters.
"He looks to me like Roger Clemens, the way he pitched back in the day," Tanner said. "When you get an opportunity against him, you'd better hit it. You're not going to get many."
Tanner said during the formal news conference he wasn't sure who would start tonight. Pressed a little later, he said ace Blake Cooper, who would be pitching on three days' rest for the second straight start, is an option.
The Gamecocks could also go with freshman left-hander Tyler Webb or senior right-hander Jay Brown. Webb has been used in two relief appearances, including a win Thursday against Oklahoma.
Brown hasn't been used here, which could be a sign of the coaching staff's confidence on this stage.
Both South Carolina and UCLA were down to their final out in this postseason. After dropping the first super regional game to Cal State Fullerton, the Bruins faced elimination in the ninth inning.
A walk and a two-run home run by Tyler Rahmatulla, though, changed the team's fortunes. It won the following day to escape the hole.
"I never sensed any quit," UCLA coach John Savage said. "I never sensed any panic."
The Gamecocks were even down to their final strike in the 12th inning Thursday night against Oklahoma. They then had to beat rival Clemson on consecutive days to continue playing.
"They've been through some," Tanner said, "and we've been through a lot."
After the team earned the right to be here, Tanner joked that the gap since the 2004 appearance felt like 25 years, to some.
Pressure had started to build, to some degree. But what the Gamecocks have done this season, with some talent but without superstars, works to provide some grace for Tanner and his staff.
Particularly maligned in the past few seasons, despite a lack of depth and talent, pitching coach Mark Calvi's work with this team has been exemplary. That's evidenced by the South Carolina staff's 2.68 ERA and .202 batting average against in this College World Series.
"We came three years in a row and then we had the six-year absence," Tanner said. "You feel like you're supposed to get back.
"I think it's all about perspective. Now, with all that said, now that you're here, you want to try and find a way."