The final inning of South Carolina’s last game against Oklahoma forever changed the Gamecocks
COLUMBIA — The sun had long since set on the old ballpark in Omaha, Neb. South Carolina and Oklahoma were playing under the lights now at Rosenblatt Stadium, in the bottom of the 12th inning of their elimination game in the 2010 College World Series. The Gamecocks trailed 2-1 after Oklahoma scored a run in the top of the 12th.
They’d been at it for close to four hours, and the end was near for USC, as it tried to win its first World Series, in its ninth trip to Omaha.
The decisions that came next — by coaches, players and an umpire — changed USC forever. Without them, the 8,200-plus fans who stream into Carolina Stadium tonight for the NCAA tournament Super Regional opener against Oklahoma would not walk by the 2010 and 2011 national championship trophies, encased in glass beyond the centerfield wall.
It started, that Thursday night, with a pitching change. To start the 12th, Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway replaced Jeremy Erben, who threw four scoreless innings, with Ryan Duke. Robert Beary led off with a single, then leadoff hitter Evan Marzilli struck out.
USC coach Ray Tanner knew he needed to do something to move Beary, a slow runner. So he had third base coach Chad Holbrook signal a hit-and-run to the next batter, Whit Merrifield.
Duke’s first pitch was a low slider. Merrifield fouled it off as Beary ran. Merrifield noticed two things as he swung: Duke had a high leg kick and slow delivery, and Beary would have easily reached second, even if Merrifield took the pitch, which came in slower than a fastball.
When the count reached 2-1, Holbrook again signaled the hit-and-run. But Merrifield remembered what he saw on the first pitch, and thought, “If he throws another slider, I’m going to take it.” This was a bold choice, ignoring a sign.
“That was one of those things where you better be right,” Merrifield said.
Duke threw a slider. Merrifield saw it was low. He took it. Ball three. Beary slid in safely. On the next pitch, Merrifield popped out to third base. But now, a runner was on second.
Up came Jackie Bradley Jr., a left-handed batter who was 0 for 5, but homered against Oklahoma two games earlier in USC’s 4-3 loss to open the World Series. Bradley figured the Sooners would pitch around him. Instead, Duke’s first pitch was a fastball for a strike.
“Oh man, they’re serious about it,” Bradley thought. “They’re going to come at me.”
In the third-base dugout, Golloway and his pitching coach, Mike Bell, signaled in outside pitch after outside pitch. With the count at 2-2, they noticed Bradley crowding the plate.
“Mike, do you think we can get in on him here?” Golloway asked Bell.
“Coach, I know we can,” Bell replied.
“Let’s do it — right now,” Golloway said.
USC was down to its final strike. Bell flashed the sign for an inside fastball to catcher Tyler Ogle. Duke wound up, leg kick high. Bradley watched Duke’s right hand, looking for the ball’s release point.
In the World Series opener, Bradley walked against Duke, and noticed Duke’s fastballs rarely tailed back over the plate. The release point would likely indicate where the pitch would end up, and Bradley said he had always felt “very confident” in his ability to recognize pitches. When the ball left Duke’s hand, Bradley figured it would be a ball, inside.
So he did the same thing as the other 24,180 people at Rosenblatt. He watched the ball hit Ogle’s glove. Bradley heard the crowd gasp. He saw the pitch cross about an inch-and-a-half off the inside of the plate. Home plate umpire A.J. Lostaglio looked at the location.
“I thought it was close enough where he could’ve rung me up,” Bradley said.
Out in left field, Oklahoma’s Max White started trotting off the field. Everybody in USC’s dugout also thought it was a strike and their season was finished. Some Gamecocks cursed. Merrifield lowered his head. So did Tanner. Then Tanner noticed something strange — nobody’s cleats shuffled off the dugout’s top step. Everybody still stood there. Tanner looked up and realized Lostaglio called a ball. Tanner gathered his thoughts.
Bell, the Oklahoma pitching coach, leapt up in frustration. Golloway, who briefly relished victory before seeing Lostaglio’s call, told Bell to “sit down, sit down,” and planned the 3-2 pitch call — a slider. The Gamecocks leaned over the dugout railing, arms extended, hands wobbling in unison. Ogle set up outside. Windup, high leg kick.
Duke left the slider over the middle. Bradley pulled it, a screaming ground ball. Oklahoma’s 6-4 first baseman, Cameron Seitzer, dove to his right. Bradley sprinted toward first, certain he could beat Seitzer or Duke there. But the ball whizzed past Seitzer’s glove. Bradley pumped his fist. Beary scored from second. Tie game.
Two batters later, Brady Thomas’ single scored Bradley from second. Bradley slid into home and popped up, into a swarm of teammates. Five nights later, USC won the championship by beating UCLA, 2-1, in 11 innings, on a walkoff single by Merrifield.
Merrifield still refers to Bradley’s single against Oklahoma as the point when “we kind of knew something special was going on” and to Lostaglio, the home plate umpire whose name Merrifield recalls, as “the guy that kind of saved our season.”
Golloway remembers every detail of that night — the second victory in USC’s current NCAA-record 19-game tournament winning streak. He said “it’s probably going to take about 10 more years” before he can move past the loss. When he spotted the image of Bradley sliding home on the wall of Carolina Stadium’s media room, he smiled said, “Aw, that’s just wrong.”
Two championships later, one of Tanner’s most vivid memories is a conversation with Bradley shortly after the game, before Tanner said video confirmed Lostaglio’s ball call was correct.
“How did you take that?” a stunned Tanner asked Bradley.
“It was inside,” Bradley said.