OMAHA, Neb. – South Carolina is one loss away from coming up just short in its quest to become the second team to ever win three straight national championships.
The Gamecocks lost 5-1 to Arizona on Sunday night in Game 1 of the College World Series’ best-of-three finals. The teams play again Monday at 8 p.m., and USC will almost certainly turn to its ace, senior left-handed pitcher Michael Roth, to once again save the season.
Roth threw a complete game in Thursday’s win over Kent State – the first of three wins in two days, all elimination games, that put USC into the championship series. But Roth wasn’t available to pitch Sunday. Neither were USC’s two other primary starters, Jordan Montgomery and Colby Holmes. Nor the Gamecocks’ setup man, Tyler Webb.
And the combination of starter Forrest Koumas, who hadn’t pitched in a month, and relievers Evan Beal and Nolan Belcher wasn’t enough against Arizona, one of the nation’s best hitting teams. The Gamecocks also hurt themselves with shoddy defense – an opening that you simply cannot give an offensively powerful team like Arizona.
“Probably in the last month, I don’t know that there’s a team in the country that has swung the bats as well as Arizona has,” USC coach Ray Tanner said before the game.
Moreover, the Wildcats got a sterling start from Konner Wade, who threw his third straight complete game and allowed six hits while striking out three and walking one.
The loss was just USC’s third loss in its past 33 NCAA tournament games. The Gamecocks must win Monday to force a decisive Game 3 on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
The Wildcats put the Gamecocks away with a run-scoring single in the seventh inning that gave them a 5-1 lead. Robert Refsnyder, who had singled, scored on the play, which added to his already impressive night. His run was the fourth that Arizona scored Sunday with two outs. The Wildcats’ first two-out runs came on Refsnyder’s two-run home run in the first. Down 4-1, USC’s coaches tried to get something going in the seventh inning by sending Adam Matthews from first to third on a single to right field. But the ball wasn’t hit deep enough, and Arizona’s right fielder, Refsnyder, threw Matthews out at third for the first out. Refsnyder was a fifth-round draft pick by the New York Yankees this year, so he could play with their Class A team, the Charleston RiverDogs, next season.
USC finally scored in the sixth, cutting Arizona’s lead to 4-1 when Evan Marzilli’s single scored Grayson Greiner from second. But the Gamecocks could get nothing else off Arizona starter Konner Wade, as they left runners on first and second.
Wade walked a batter in the sixth, snapping a streak of 30 walk-less innings. He entered the game with a 1.38 earned-run average in the NCAA tournament. He had back-to-back complete games and three straight with at least eight innings pitched. USC’s run in the fourth ended Wade’s streak of 15 scoreless innings.
Arizona posted a run in the fifth to go up 4-0 when Johnny Field scored from third on a single. He had reached third when catcher Grayson Greiner gathered a wild pitch and tried to throw Field out as he sprinted from first to second, but Greiner’s throw sailed into center field. It was Greiner’s second error of the season and USC’s second of the game – both of which led to an unearned run. USC had just one error in five World Series games this year before Sunday.
Arizona went up 3-0 in the third when Alex Mejia smacked a grounder through the left side and scored a runner from second, Trent Gilbert, who originally reached to lead off the inning on a fielding error by shortstop Joey Pankake. It was his 17th error of the season, but before Sunday, he had gone 24 games without one, dating to April 27.
USC replaced Koumas with Beal, a freshman, with one out in the third inning, USC down 3-0 and the bases loaded. Beal was the Gamecocks’ top reliever Sunday because Webb was unavailable after throwing 71 pitches on Friday. Beal had pitched twice in the NCAA tournament, but not since June 11 in the Super Regional.
USC got out of the third when Pankake started a 6-4-3 double play with the bases loaded – a much-needed response to his error. Arizona got just one run in the third. Pankake’s 6-3 double play also got USC out of the fourth inning without allowing any runs, after Arizona had runners on first and third.
Arizona got on the board first, when Refsnyder, the cleanup hitter, popped a two-run home run off Koumas into the USC bullpen in right field. Koumas was pitching for the first time since May 25 and has been dealing with a stress fracture in his elbow.
Refsnyder’s home run came on a 2-2 pitch with two outs, as he hit it the opposite way, where the wind was blowing Sunday in spacious TD Ameritrade Park, whose right field fence is 335 feet from home plate. It was Refsnyder’s eighth homer of the year, and 65th and 66th runs batted-in. He leads the team in both categories – the best power hitter on a team full of them.
USC’s opponent scored first for the fifth time in six games at this World Series. The Gamecocks won three of the previous four. They trailed Arkansas 2-0 in the middle of the fifth inning, Kent State 1-0 in the middle of the second and Florida 2-0 at the end of the fourth.
On Friday night, after USC beat Arkansas to clinch a spot in the championship series, USC coach Ray Tanner was asked if the Gamecocks, who aren’t nearly as strong an offensive team as Arizona, could realistically expect to beat the Wildcats by scoring four runs or fewer, as they had done in four of their five World Series games.
“Probably not,” Tanner said. “What are they averaging, 10 (runs) a game?
He was close. The Wildcats entered Sunday averaging 9.9. They got half that, and now they are halfway to a national title.