USC falls to Arkansas, faces CWS elimination
OMAHA, Neb. – Comebacks have been a hallmark of South Carolina's NCAA tournament domination over the past two-plus seasons. The Gamecocks now need a big one, in a bad way, if they want to become the second ever team to win three straight national championships.
Monday's 2-1 loss to Arkansas means USC must win three games in three days at the College World Series, starting Wednesday at 8 p.m. against Kent State, in order to make the best-of-three championship series, which begins Sunday. One loss, though, and USC will be on its way home.
The Gamecocks' deficit Monday was far from insurmountable – 2-0 after four innings – but they got only a run in the fifth to answer. USC coach Ray Tanner liked that his players struck out just four times, but Arkansas' combination of starter Ryne Stanek and closer Barrett Astin was too good – especially Stanek's curveball, said USC centerfielder Evan Marzilli.
“I thought our guys battled hard up there, but their stuff was very special,” Tanner said.
The Gamecocks have rebounded from a loss before to win a national championship, in 2010, when they lost their World Series opener. That was last time they lost in the NCAA tournament before Wednesday.
If they want to win it all again this year, they must have more offensive production than they did Monday. They managed just four hits on a relentlessly muggy night when the game-time temperature was 93 degrees, with a heat index of 99.
Arkansas got a strong performance from Stanek, who gave up three hits and a run in six innings, while striking out three and walking three. After throwing 91 pitches, he was replaced with Astin, who entered Monday with a 2.15 earned-run average, but hadn't thrown more than 2 1/3 innings in his previous 15 appearances.
Arkansas' pitchers retired nine straight USC batters until LB Dantzler's two-out double in the eighth inning. That was USC's last good chance. The next batter, No. 5 hitter Adam Matthews, grounded out to second, making USC 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position Monday. USC went down in order in the ninth, as Arkansas retired 13 of the final 14 USC batters.
The loss snapped USC's 22-game NCAA tournament winning streak and 12-game College World Series winning streak, both records. Entering Monday, USC was 27-1 in the NCAA tournament since the beginning of the 2010 tournament.
“It was as a great run,” Tanner said. “You don't know if it could happen or if it'll ever happen again.”
The Gamecocks had come from behind to win 11 games during their 22-game winning streak. On Saturday, USC trailed Florida 2-0 after four innings and won 7-3.
USC will try to stay alive against Kent State, which eliminated Florida, the No. 1 overall seed, in Monday's first game. Florida, which lost Saturday to USC, is the first No. 1 seed to go 0-2 in Omaha since 2010, when USC knocked out Arizona State to start the Gamecocks' tournament winning streak.
Ace pitcher Michael Roth might start against Kent State, as pitching coach Jerry Meyers said Sunday that he was comfortable throwing Roth on three of days rest for the third time in his career. But Tanner said late Monday that no determination had been made on a starter.
“I haven't had any thought about that yet,” Tanner said. “We haven't had any conversations. I don't think we went into this game anticipating a loss.”
One USC pitcher who won't be available Wednesday is setup man Tyler Webb, who threw 82 pitches in 5 1/3 innings of scoreless, two-hit relief Monday – his longest outing of the season. After that type of work, there's a chance Webb might not be available Thursday, if USC wins Wednesday. USC has yet to throw its other setup reliever, freshman Evan Beal, in Omaha. Webb was the only reliever USC used on Monday.
“(Webb) may be done for a few days,” Tanner said. “That's what happens. You get into a situation like this, not knowing how the game would unfold. He's been one of our better guys the entire year. We obviously went to him a little earlier than normal. But they had two runs on the board and we wanted to try to play a hold game right there, and he's good enough to do that. And he continued to hold them. We just didn't scratch for him.
“I'm not sure that he'll be back in a few days. He needs some rest now. The good news, though, is he did stay out there, so we didn't use anybody else in the game.”
On Monday, Arkansas took a 1-0 lead in the first, as USC starter Colby Holmes allowed two hits, including Dominic Ficociello's double on a 3-0 pitch with two outs, which scored a runner from third.
Holmes had been nearly unhittable in three of his past four starts, against LSU, Manhattan and Oklahoma, the latter two in the NCAA tournament. In 19 2/3 innings during those three starts, he allowed six hits and no earned runs, while striking out 15 batters and walking two. In his NCAA tournament starts, Holmes allowed two hits and zero runs in 13 innings.
Monday was his first time pitching against Arkansas this season, because he missed the trip to Fayetteville with a strained shoulder. On Sunday, he said he didn't think Arkansas' lack of familiarity with him this season would be an advantage for him.
It certainly didn't appear to be. The Razorbacks got the lead-off hitter on base in all four innings against Holmes, who lasted just 3 2/3 innings and 53 pitches before he was replaced by Webb, with Arkansas leading 2-0.
Holmes had a chance to get out of the fourth, but the final batter he faced, Matt Vinson, singled on a 2-2 pitch with two outs. The hit scored Brian Anderson, who had just advanced to second on a delayed steal that USC catcher Dante Rosenberg didn't recognize quickly enough.
Through the first four-plus innings, USC was 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position. USC left runners on second and third in the first inning, a runner on second in the third, and a runner on third in the fourth.
Then, in the fifth, USC took advantage of Stanek walking Chase Vergason to lead off the inning – the only time all night that USC put the lead-off hitter on – when Marzilli ripped a two-out triple on an 0-2 count. The ball flew over the head of Vinson, the centerfielder, who misjudged its flight. Vergason scored from second, cutting Arkansas' lead to 2-1.
Monday marked the first time USC has ever played two Southeastern Conference teams in a College World Series. The Gamecocks played LSU once in 2003 and 2004 and swept Florida, two games to none, in last year's championship series – USC's second straight national title.
If a third straight is going to happen, USC must find a way to come back again from the nervous and narrow edge of elimination.