OMAHA, Neb. — South Carolina's players gathered in their dugout Sunday night, trying to absorb a rare loss at the College World Series, 5-1 to Arizona in Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series. It put the Gamecocks one loss away from falling just short in their quest to become just the second team to ever win three straight national championships.
Their captains — Michael Roth, Adam Matthews and Matt Price — addressed the team. All three players were around in 2010 when USC lost its World Series opener, then won six straight games to win the title. All three played important roles in the Gamecocks winning three elimination games in two days last week to reach the championship series.
“They just told us they've been in this situation before and they know what they've got to do to get us back to a Game 3,” said freshman catcher Grayson Greiner.
In order to reach Tuesday's Game 3, USC must first beat Arizona at 8 p.m. today. USC coach Ray Tanner said he likely will turn to Roth, his ace senior left-hander, to once again save the season. He did it Thursday by throwing a complete game against Kent State — the first of those three straight wins.
The Gamecocks are not used to losing in Omaha, or the postseason, for that matter. Sunday's defeat was just their third in 33 NCAA tournament games over the past two-plus seasons. But they are accustomed to responding well to losses at the World Series, where they are 15-2 in elimination games under Tanner, with seven consecutive wins since 2010.
Arizona will counter Roth's start with junior righty Kurt Heyer or sophomore righty James Farris. If either comes close to emulating Konner Wade's performance Sunday, the Gamecocks will be hard-pressed to win. Wade threw his third straight complete game, second in this World Series, and allowed six hits while striking out three and walking one.
“He had a lot of good sink on his fastball,” said Greiner, whose sixth-inning double was USC's only extra-base hit.
You cannot give a team any wiggle room when its pitcher is throwing as well as Wade did Sunday, and when its bats are as powerful as Arizona's. And USC let the Wildcats wiggle far too often, even after starter Forrest Koumas, who hadn't pitched since May 25, allowed three runs (two earned) on four hits in just 21/3 innings.
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.
Arizona made it 4-0 in the fourth when Johnny Field scored from third on a single. He had reached third when 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. USC made just one error in five World Series games this year before Sunday.
USC had a chance to cut into the lead in the seventh, when it trailed 4-1. Then Matthews ran through a stop sign from third base coach Chad Holbrook while trying to run from first base to third on a single to right field. Arizona's right fielder, Robert Refsnyder, who already hit a two-run home run in the first, scooped up the ball and threw Matthews out at third. Matthews looked up at umpire Danny Mascorro making the call and slammed his palm into the dirt in frustration. “I thought maybe he would throw it to second,” Tanner said. “He had to make a perfect throw to third. He did. When you're trailing, you probably should have held up there, but sometimes things happen in baseball.”
Tanner wasn't trying to dismiss the play's importance. He is just conditioned, from years of coaching, to not stew for long, especially with a critical redemption opportunity looming.
Three months ago Sunday, his team was 17-7 and 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference after dropping two of three games to Florida. At that point, nobody was thinking about USC's World Series finals sweep of Florida in 2011, because many observers couldn't envision the Gamecocks even returning to Omaha. They answered by closing SEC play 17-6 and going 32-11 overall heading into Sunday. Tonight, they must answer again, or their spectacular run is finished.
“The only thing I really want to happen now is what these guys talked about — get over it,” Tanner said. “If somebody would have said two months ago, 'Hey, you're going to be in the championship series, but you're going to be down by a game. Will you sign for it?' Absolutely.”