COLUMBIA — The last time South Carolina and Florida met on a baseball field, it was one of the most legendary games in the history of both programs.
USC won 2-1 in 11 innings, in the first game of the best-of-three College World Series final last June. The next night, the Gamecocks beat their Southeastern Conference East Division rival to win their second straight national title.
Tonight at Carolina Stadium, USC and Florida meet again, beginning a three-game series that is one of the most anticipated matchups in college baseball season, though it lost a bit of juice last weekend when USC was swept at Kentucky in its SEC-opening series, and on Wednesday, when the Gamecocks fell to Wofford.
After the Kentucky series, USC dropped from No. 3 to No. 8 in Baseball America’s top 25, while Florida remained No. 1, where the Gators have resided all season.
“You’d like to certainly be playing better than we have been,” said USC coach Ray Tanner.
USC bounced back from the Kentucky sweep by beating Furman 8-5 on Tuesday — a game USC sorely needed to win after suffering just its seventh sweep against an SEC opponent since the beginning of the 2006 season.
Then, on Wednesday, USC lost 5-4 in 11 innings at home to Wofford (9-12) — a rare midweek loss for the Gamecocks.
They lost two last year, to Furman and The Citadel, both on the road. They lost zero midweek games in 2010. Their last midweek home loss came in 2009, against Clemson. A week before that, they lost a midweek home game to The Citadel.
“It’s been a tough stretch here, but there’s no reason we can’t come out tomorrow and play our butts off,” said USC
centerfielder Evan Marzilli. “And that’s what we’re looking forward to do.”
He knows this is still USC-Florida, and tonight’s series opener showcases two of college baseball’s best arms: USC senior left-hander Michael Roth and Florida junior righty Hudson Randall.
Roth, of course, started the clinching games in the past two College World Series. This season, he has performed up to the standards of his preseason All-America honors. He is 2-0 in five starts with a 1.26 ERA, 36 strikeouts and just seven walks. Roth, for one, doesn’t think the Florida series is coming at a good time for USC.
“I think right now we’re not really looking forward to it at all,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s going on. As a team, we need to be a little bit tougher. We need to grow up a little bit, and we need to grow up fast.”
Randall is 3-0 this season with a 3.45 ERA, 23 strikeouts and one walk. He delivered a masterful performance against USC in last year’s World Series, allowing three hits and one run in 72/3 innings, while striking out six and walking one. Randall was picked in the 46th round of the Major League Baseball draft out of high school. He may be a first-round pick this year. Tanner compared him to Greg Maddux.
The 11-inning game typified the recent results of the USC-Florida rivalry. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan arrived in Gainesville in 2008, after spending nine seasons as an assistant at Clemson. He is 7-8 against USC, but it has won four of the past five meetings, in response to Florida’s five-game winning streak in the series.
Most recently, USC won last season’s regular season series 2-1; Florida won 2-1 in 2010, when the Gators also made the College World Series and went 0-2; and Florida swept USC in 2009. That was the last time before last weekend’s Kentucky series that USC had been swept. USC last swept Florida in 2006.
“We’re not really looking at it as playing the No. 1 team,” said USC first baseman Christian Walker. “It’s just Florida. We look forward to it every year.”