OMAHA, Neb. —Twice before, Adam Matthews walked to the plate with the bases loaded on Friday night, in South Carolina’s College World Series elimination game against Arkansas. Twice before, Matthews came away empty, hitting into a double play to end the first inning and striking out to end the fifth, after USC tied the game.
43 – Number of pitches thrown by USC starter Colby Holmes on Friday. In his previous start, Monday against Arkansas, he threw 53 pitches. 1985 – The last time a team made the College World Series final three years in a row. Texas did it and lost for the second straight year. Texas was the second team to do it, joining Southern California, which won a record five straight titles from 1970-74. 1.68 – USC’s earned-run average in the NCAA tournament entering Friday’s game. It was 3.06 before the tournament.
And here he was again, with the bases loaded and two outs, in the seventh inning of a tie game. The count was 3-2. Baseball presents few tenser moments than this.
Adding to the drama, Matthews is a senior, so this could have been his final at-bat. He was toeing the edge of a frustrating finish to a disappointing final season, in which was hitting .202 exactly two months ago Friday, before closing the season strong. Arkansas’ closer, Barrett Astin, looked at the sign and wound up. In the split second after he released the ball, Matthews started to swing. The pitch tailed low and away. Matthews flexed his forearms and pulled the bat back. No swing. Ball four. USC led for the first time all night.
Of all the doubles to the gap and diving catches and nasty sliders that decide a team’s season, it was Matthews’ eyes, in the Gamecocks’ 67th game this year, that ultimately assured they will play on.
His walk put USC up 3-2, which was the final. It finished the Gamecocks’ response to a 2-0 deficit in the fifth inning and put them into the best-of-three World Series final against Arizona, starting Sunday at 8 p.m. Arizona is 8-0 in the NCAA tournament.
USC won three games in two days after losing Monday to Arkansas, and continues its pursuit of its third straight national title — something just one team has accomplished. USC is the third team to play for the national title in three straight seasons.
In a cruel twist for Arkansas, its bullpen dominated for so long until the Matthews walk, which broke a streak of 26 scoreless innings. Arkansas walked eight batters in its first three games of this World Series, including a loss Thursday night to USC. Matthews’ walk was the Razorbacks’ ninth Friday.
USC closer Matt Price finished them off, as he has done to so many teams in Omaha, by throwing three scoreless innings.
Price is one of the best pitchers in College World Series history. Entering Friday, he allowed one run in 212/3 career innings in Omaha, a 0.42 ERA that was just a shade below his 0.46 career ERA in the NCAA tournament. When he trotted out of the bullpen before the seventh, he brought with him a 152/3 scoreless inning streak in Omaha. It is now 182/3.
Arkansas extended its lead to 2-0 in the third. The Razorbacks had runners on second and third with nobody out when USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers replaced starter Colby Holmes with Tyler Webb. Holmes lasted two innings and allowed three hits and two runs. He threw just 43 pitches — his second consecutive short start against the Razorbacks in this World Series.
Webb gave USC four scoreless innings. It was his 14th career NCAA tournament appearance and he has allowed zero runs and six hits, with 17 strikeouts, in 182/3 innings. He threw 71 pitches Friday after throwing 82 in relief on Monday against Arkansas. That, along with Wednesday’s rain, forced USC to try to win three games in two days to stay alive.
In the fifth, the Gamecocks got on the board when Joey Pankake’s single to center, on a pitch left over the middle of the plate, scored Tanner English, USC’s fastest player, from second. Pankake entered Friday batting .184 in the NCAA tournament, compared to .284 before it, with two runs batted-in.
USC’s second run came when Arkansas ace starter DJ Baxendale pitched a bit too carefully to USC’s best hitter, Christian Walker, with the bases loaded. Baxendale left a 3-2 pitch low and away, Walker walked and the game was tied at two.
USC couldn’t get any more runs, because Matthews struck out with the bases loaded. He entered the game hitting .167 with the bases loaded.
Baxendale didn’t finish the fifth and wound up with four hits and two runs allowed in 41/3 innings. He struck out two and walked a career-high five.
Signs were everywhere that the World Series was entering its tense final days. At the white merchandise tents in the shadow of TD Ameritrade Park, merchandise for the five eliminated teams was discounted, as just three teams remained Friday.
USC had to feel good about its recent history in World Series elimination games heading into Friday. The Gamecocks were 14-2 under coach Ray Tanner in those games, with six straight wins. They remained alive on Thursday by beating Kent State and Arkansas, to force a decisive game Friday and become the third team ever, and first since 1952, to win two games in one day at the World Series.
A chance to make more history awaits.