OMAHA, Neb. — They were in some crummy hotel out near a lake one year at the Southern Conference baseball tournament, and Ray Tanner and Andy Lopez got to talking.
They talked about the coaching profession, sure, because that was the most obvious thing they shared — Tanner as South Carolina’s coach, Lopez as Florida’s. They also talked about their families, about how Tanner and his wife were trying to have kids, about how to keep life in perspective amid the madness of coaching in SEC.
“We talked about all the things that we don’t get a chance to talk about a lot about,” said Lopez.
Lopez arrived at Florida in 1995, two years before Tanner got to USC. Tanner recalled that they “just kind of hit it off,” back then because “I think we’re both maybe high strung a little bit.”
Tanner remembered Lopez being “an inspiration” to him in those years, with their conversations about the important priorities in their lives. There were lighter moments, too, like the rain delay at Florida when Tanner and Lopez chatted for a while before Tanner looked up and realized Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was helping pull the tarp. Tanner got a little nervous about standing idly by, and figured maybe one of them should go help the boss.
Tanner and Lopez, old friends, met again Saturday morning, joking through a press conference, with a back slap here and there, on the eve of their matchup in the College World Series’ best-of-three final. Tonight at 8, Tanner and USC will meet Lopez and Arizona in Game 1.
The Gamecocks will start sophomore right-hander Forrest Koumas, because their top three starters aren’t available. He started Game 1 of the championship series last year against Florida and allowed a run and three hits in 5 2/3 innings, leading USC to a win.
He didn’t pitch this year from March 31 to May 2 because of a stress fracture in his elbow that Tanner has said might require offseason surgery. This will be his fourth start of the season and 18th appearance. He hasn’t thrown in a game since May 25, in relief in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
But his two appearances before that, both starts, were solid. At Arkansas, he allowed five hits and no runs in 5 1/3 innings, while striking out four and walking two. Against LSU, he threw 4 1/3 innings and had five hits, three runs, one earned, two walks and four strikeouts. Those were his second and third games since returning from the layoff.
Sophomore righty Konner Wade will start for Arizona, which is 8-0 in the NCAA tournament. He is 10-3 with a 4.17 ERA, 102 strikeouts and 36 walks in 127 1/3 innings. Wade threw a complete game five-hitter in Sunday’s win over UCLA — his fifth complete game of the year.
For all the similarities and familiarity between Tanner and Lopez, who went to Arizona from Florida in 2002, the profiles of their starting pitchers tonight aren’t the only major difference between the two coaches’ teams.
USC’s strength is pitching. The Gamecocks rank 10th nationally with a 2.95 ERA and first with 1.12 walks plus hits per inning pitched. In the NCAA tournament, USC has a 1.71 ERA.
Arizona relies on hitting. The Wildcats’.330 batting average is fourth nationally. Their 7.4 runs scored per game ranks sixth. They have seven regular players hitting .300 (five more than USC), and they’re all hitting at least .324. In the NCAA tournament, Arizona is out-scoring opponents by an average of 9.9 to 3.3.
Tanner returned to his team’s hotel Friday night after USC beat Arkansas, its third win in two days, to make the World Series final. He showered quickly and was eating a slice of pepperoni pizza when his sports information director, Andrew Kitick, brought him Arizona’s stats and pointed out the Wildcats’ batting average.
“Andrew, can I just get through one piece of pizza?” a weary Tanner wise-cracked.
Tanner stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. Sunday, poring over the Wildcats’ stats and admiring their discipline, evident right there in the strikeout column. Arizona has 305, USC 460. Tanner in recent weeks watched Arizona’s games and noticed how the Wildcats “use the entire field” and are willing to hit the ball the opposite way, rather than trying to pull every pitch.
Lopez has said they must play like that because their home ballpark, Hi Corbett Field, where they moved this season from their campus stadium, is so large – 366 feet to left field, 349 to right, 392 to center and 410 and 405 to the gaps. By comparison, USC’s Carolina Stadium is 325 to left and right, 400 to center and 375 to the gaps.
“If you do make a mistake, a lot of times you’ll say a team will capitalize and get a run,” Tanner said. “They’ll get four.”
While the teams’ styles contrast, their coaches clearly connect.
The first thing Lopez said at the press conference was: “We’re excited to be invited to the Ray Tanner Invitational.” He recognizes how well his friend’s team has performed in Omaha. Tanner is 23-8 here and USC is trying to become the second team to ever win three straight titles.
Tanner knows Lopez is a formidable opponent, having won the 1992 title at Pepperdine and made two trips here with Florida. This is his second trip with Arizona, which is staying in the same hotel as USC. Tanner joked that he got one of Arizona’s players to give him the Wildcats’ room list and was going to try to use that to his advantage on the eve of Game 1.
It is an important game, but at least for Saturday, the mood was light-hearted between the two old friends. They were sharing the story about their conversations at that crummy hotel near the lake, talking here about perspective, just like they did there.
Lopez couldn’t resist one more opportunity to make Tanner laugh with a quip: “I tell my athletes all the time, ‘Hey, believe it or not, I don’t go home and get in a closet, my wife shoves food under the door and I show up the next day: Come on, what are we doing? Let’s get the bunt defense ready. I have a life.’”