OMAHA, Neb. — South Carolina’s players stood still. Some crossed their arms. Others held white boxes at their sides containing their second-place awards. The dirt at their feet was covered with confetti that, moments earlier, had showered down on their shoulders as they leaned on their dugout railing and watched Arizona celebrate a 4-1 victory Monday and national championship.
The Wildcats rushed onto the field, piling up near the mound, hoisting the trophy, just as USC’s players did the past two years. Beyond the left- field wall, fireworks exploded in the night sky. For a few moments, none of the Gamecocks moved. They just leaned on the railing and watched.
After shaking hands with the Wildcats, the Gamecocks accepted the second-place trophy, similar, but silver — the cruelest color of all. The face of their team, senior ace pitcher Michael Roth, walked out to get it. His eyes appeared red. He sniffled and looked back at his best friend, senior right fielder Adam Matthews. “Come on,” Roth said quietly to Matthews.
The two of them got the trophy. Roth never lifted it above his waist. He cradled it at his side, walked directly into the dugout and placed it atop the bench. He walked away from it and joined his teammates, standing still on the dirt outside the dugout. None of them looked at the silver trophy.
The video board aired highlights and the Wildcats addressed their fans and, eventually, it all became too much for USC closer Matt Price, who had seemed so invincible at the College World Series, but finally cracked in the ninth inning Monday. Price walked away from his teammates and sat alone in the dugout. He removed his hat and stared off into the distance.
“I just felt like I didn’t give our team a chance to win,” Price said later, in a near whisper, as he recalled his emotions while sitting on the bench. “Giving up that run, it kind of melted me. My emotions were just kind of getting the best of me.”
So he got as far away from the field as he could, alone in the dugout, holding his hat in his hands for the final time. He sat still.
He and the Gamecocks will move on from this at some point, but not Monday night, not when they came so close to becoming just the second team to ever win three straight national titles, only to be swept in the best-of-three finals. It was a bitter ending to a remarkable three-year run in which USC went 30-4 in the NCAA tournament.
The difference Monday was ninth-inning double down the left field line by Brandon Dixon, which scored Robert Refsnyder from second and put Arizona up 2-1 in a game that had been a pitchers’ duel to that point. Refsnyder led off the inning by singling off Price. Entering Monday, Price had allowed just one run in 242/3 career innings in Omaha and his 0.36 earned-run average ranked third all-time among pitchers with at least 20 innings. Price was 5-0 in the World Series before Monday — the record for most wins.
He was credited with Monday’s loss and all three runs Arizona scored in the ninth. Dixon’s hit was probably the last pitch of his career. He was immediately replaced by Tyler Webb. Price, a fourth-year junior, almost certainly will turn pro after being drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore Orioles.
He shouldn’t shoulder all the responsibility for the loss. USC coach Ray Tanner said earlier in the season, when his team’s offense sputtered, that it would struggle to win if it failed to crack the four-run mark, as it did too often early on. USC couldn’t score more than four runs in any of its final six games in Omaha, in which it went 3-3 and totaled 12 runs.
“Eventually, that’s going to get you,” Tanner said.
USC set up a dramatic finish, typical of this team’s style over the past three years, by tying the game at one in the seventh after putting the leadoff hitter on base for the first time all night, on a walk by Christian Walker.
Two batters later, with one out, Matthews slapped a hit-and-run single into right field. Matthews was hitting .190 in this College World Series before Monday. His single was just USC’s second hit of the night, both off starter James Farris, who threw 72/3 innings. The Gamecocks got one more hit the rest of the night, off Mathew Troupe. Fittingly, the Gamecocks didn’t get a hit to tie the game in the seventh. The batter after Matthews, power hitter Kyle Martin, dribbled a ground-out to the first baseman, bringing Walker home.
In the final game of his career, Roth did everything he could to sustain the Gamecocks’ season. He lasted 62/3 innings, before Price replaced him, and allowed three hits and a run. His only walk was intentional. He struck out three batters and threw 85 pitches, 59 for strikes.
Roth made sure USC would have a chance to win for the eighth time in his record eight starts here. But the Gamecocks’ lack of offense doomed them. In their previous five games in Omaha before Monday, they hit .197 — absurdly deficient even for a team without much pop at the plate.
They had rarely cracked here in Omaha, where they were 15-2 in elimination games under Tanner before Monday, with seven straight wins. As they absorbed the unfamiliar feeling of falling just short, they were still standing there on the dirt outside the dugout late Monday night, watching the celebration. To signal its conclusion, a firework boomed beyond the left field wall.
The Gamecocks tepped down into the dugout, gathered their bats and gloves, and walked away.