South Carolina beats Florida to begin its pursuit of a third straight national championship
OMAHA, Neb. – The last time South Carolina played Florida in the College World Series, Michael Roth started and Matt Price closed and the Gamecocks piled up on the infield to celebrate their second consecutive national championship.
There was no pileup Saturday night, and the Gamecocks still have plenty of work to do before they can raise another trophy, but they took a significant step toward that moment with Saturday's 7-3 win over Florida in their World Series opener.
Once again, Roth started and Price closed, but it was a new face, sophomore Erik Payne, who provided the difference with his bat. Out on the field this time instead of watching from the dugout, as he did last year, Payne ripped a three-run triple on a 2-2 pitch in the fifth inning – the first runs of a five-run inning in which USC took a 5-2 lead.
USC will play Arkansas on Monday at 9 p.m. Arkansas beat Kent State 8-1 in Saturday's first game. Florida will play Kent State on Monday at 5. The Gators, who are the No. 1 overall seed in this NCAA tournament, now find themselves a loss away from going home.
Right-hander Ryne Stanek will start for Arkansas. He is 7-4 this season with a 2.91 earned-run average, 80 strikeouts and 33 walks. In an 8-6 USC win at Arkansas earlier this season, Stanek gave up six hits and five runs in five innings.
Saturday's victory extended USC's record tournament winning streak to 22 games, but this victory did not come easily, even after USC took the 5-2 lead.
Florida threatened in the fifth and seventh innings. It had runners on second and third with one out both times, and the bases loaded with two outs in the seventh. But the Gators got just one run, on a sacrifice fly in the seventh, to cut the USC lead to 5-3.
Tyler Webb replaced Roth with one out in the seventh and got the final two outs, the last one with the bases loaded, before Price came on to start the eighth. Roth's performance was not as dominant as his past starts in Omaha, but it was effective: seven hits, three runs (all earned), three walks and three strikeouts, though two of those runs came on a tough-luck play for him.
Florida took a 2-0 lead in the third inning on a cruel turn of events for USC. Florida had runners on first and second with nobody out, and then USC made two spectacular defensive plays. Roth dove to snag a popped up bunt for the first out. Second baseman Chase Vergason laid out to stop a ground ball up the middle and flipped to second for the second out.
USC would've gotten out of the inning clean, but freshman left fielder Tanner English initially stepped in on a fly ball hit directly at him. The ball sailed over English's head and both runners scored. Defense had been a strong point for USC all season. English had just two errors and the Gamecocks entered Saturday ranked fifth nationally in fielding percentage.
USC couldn't take advantage of scoring opportunities in the first four innings, when it stranded seven runners. The Gamecocks had the bases loaded with two outs in the first, a runner on second with two outs in the second, a runner on third with one out in the third, and runners on first and second with nobody out in the fourth. And they got nothing.
They probably would've evened the score at two in the fourth, but centerfielder Daniel Pigott ran down Joey Pankake's fly to dead center and made an over-the-shoulder grab to end the inning – a play that stood in stark contrast to English's gaffe in the third.
USC broke through in the fifth. The biggest hit – and one of the most significant this season – was Payne's three-run triple with nobody out. USC got its next two runs on LB Dantzler's double to dead center and Vergason's single.
“I was trying to keep my hands still and try to stay balanced and work the whole field,” Payne said. “I got a fastball that I could drive.”
But it was Payne's triple that finally let USC cash in a scoring chance. A sophomore, Payne had played in 35 of 62 games before Saturday, with 28 starts. He wasn't a strong enough defender to stick at second base, where he made 21 starts. But he has good power, and a .451 slugging percentage entering Saturday, when he started as the designated hitter.
“He is one of the hardest workers on our team, without question,” said Dantzler. “He's in the cage more than just about anybody, the weight room. He gets after it all the time. Getting hits like that, you're not surprised with all the time he puts in.
“It's tough for anybody when you're not playing every day to come in and get an at-bat maybe in the eighth inning or you DH once a weekend. It's tough to do. When you haven't seen live pitching in two weeks, then you get tossed in, it's completely different than (batting practice). He's done a great job and stayed mentally tough, because it can wear on you mentally a little bit. Everybody wants to play.”
Dantzler was standing in the on-deck circle when Payne hit his triple to right centerfield. As Dantzler watched the ball drop, he immediately thought of Payne's two-run double to right center in the Gamecocks' first game against Florida this season, and their only win against the Gators before Saturday. Payne's double in the March game put USC up 6-1 in game it won 9-3.
“Oh, this looks pretty familiar,” Dantzler thought.
Johnson was finished before he could get an out in the fifth, and he ended with eight hits and five runs allowed, all earned. It was his shortest outing since April 10. In his past four starts before Saturday, he had a 1.38 earned-run average, 18 strikeouts and three walks. He allowed 14 hits in 26 innings during those starts, which included a complete game against USC.
Florida entered Saturday as one of college baseball's best pitching teams, with a 1.13 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), which ranked first nationally. USC hadn't been an offensive power this season, with just a .271 batting average heading into the World Series, but the Gamecocks got the timely hits when they needed them in the fifth.
Florida now faces the challenging task of trying to win the championship after dropping its first game – something just three teams in the past 31 years have done, including USC in 2010. That was the last time the Gamecocks lost in the NCAA tournament, and their record winning streak was at 21 games entering Saturday. They were 26-1 in the tournament over the past two-plus seasons – the highest three-year winning percentage in NCAA history.
But several important players on this team weren't around for USC's past two national championships, and how they handled the World Series environment, including playing in a ballpark about three times bigger than Carolina Stadium, would determine, to a large degree, whether USC could become the second team to ever win three straight titles.
The realization of this stage's size happened quickly for English. When he arrived at the team's hotel Wednesday afternoon, he opened the curtains in his room and got a perfect view of TD Ameritrade Park.
He and the Gamecocks would have to wait four days before Saturday's game, and that ballpark out the window wasn't going anywhere. It is festooned with reminders of USC's success in Omaha the past two years, including a giant image on the exterior façade of former second baseman Scott Wingo, last year's World Series Most Outstanding Player.
Saturday's game was the fourth and final matchup in the World Series' opening round, and probably the most anticipated. It was a rematch of last year's championship series, which USC won, two games to none. The teams that met in the final hadn't played in the opening round the next year in Omaha since 1960.
The Gators got a small measure of revenge this season by beating the Gamecocks in three of four meetings, including the past three before Saturday. There was no denying the supreme, and superior, talent of this Florida team, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gators had eight players picked in the first nine rounds of the Major League Baseball draft, including four in the first two rounds.
Their second-highest drafted player was Johnson, the 31st selection. In the most recent USC-Florida game – a 7-2 Gators win in the Southeastern Conference tournament – Johnson threw a viciously efficient complete game: five hits, five strikeouts, no walks and just 89 pitches. USC coach Ray Tanner compares him to Andy Pettitte.
In the days before Saturday's game, Tanner did not shy away from heaping hyperbolic praise on the Gators, saying their two best sluggers, Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker, “can hit them out of the Grand Canyon.”
But on Saturday, Florida met one of most successful pitchers ever in Omaha: senior lefty Michael Roth, whose earned-run average in seven appearances at the World Series (five starts) was 1.17, second-lowest ever among players with at least 30 innings pitched here.
Moreover, Roth was 3-0 in three career starts against Florida, with a 1.99 ERA. He started last year's national championship clinching victory over the Gators, and his six starts in the College World Series are the second-most all-time.
Florida, the favorite to win this year's title since before the season began, came to Omaha for the eighth time, still seeking its first championship, after two runner-up finishes. It is a similar situation to USC's in 2010, when the Gamecocks won their first title in their ninth trip to the World Series, having already finished second three times.
Both teams entered Saturday's game 5-0 in this tournament – a much-needed turnaround for Florida, which started the season 31-9, including a 2-1 series victory at USC, then went 11-9 in its final 20 games before the NCAA tournament. USC had lost its opener in seven of its 10 trips to Omaha before this season.
Freshman catcher Grayson Greiner did not start for USC on Saturday, but in the fourth inning, he replaced Dante Rosenberg, who had caught the entire NCAA tournament to that point because of Greiner's knee injury. Tanner said Friday that Greiner had progressed enough that he was felt comfortable with not only playing Greiner, but putting him behind the plate.
Greiner was just one of USC's different faces on Saturday, when the mix of new contributors like Payne and established Omaha stars like Roth and Price put the Gamecocks one step closer to another celebratory pileup.
As Tanner reflected on Payne's hit, he said it's “a tremendous challenge” for a player to stay sharp when he isn't playing every day.
“One of the reasons he's had some opportunities is because of that extra work that he puts in,” Tanner said. “Last year as a freshman, he wasn't good enough. He worked hard. He was a good kid. But he wasn't good enough. This year, he's a better player. He's better physically. He worked harder to become a guy that could contribute and he's done that.
“I was talking to him about it a couple weeks ago, and I said, 'Erik, as a freshman, you couldn't help us. You've helped us this year. Next year's going to be even better.' I don't expect he's going to stay where he is. He's going to continue to get better.”