OMAHA, Neb. — So much of South Carolina’s baseball season involved mixing a core group of established players, who had won back-to-back national championships, and a highly regarded collection of freshmen.
Key Losses 1B Christian Walker Batted .321 in his senior season with 11 HRs and 55 RBIs, leading the team in all three categories. He hit .358 as a sophomore. CF Evan Marzilli Proved to be plenty capable as a defensive replacement for Jackie Bradley Jr., as he had just two errors while ranking third on the team with a .284 batting average. RHP Matt Price Despite allowing three runs Monday, Price leaves with a 1.35 career ERA in Omaha. LHP Michael Roth Perhaps the most memorable player in USC history, Roth started the clinching games of the 2010 and 2011 national titles. RF Adam MatthewsHit .307 as a sophomore, .264 as a junior and .236 as a senior, but had a huge NCAA regional this year and was the MVP. Key ReturneesSS Joey Pankake Struggled defensively at times (17 errors), but settled in later in the season and has potential as a hitter (.264). LF Tanner EnglishHad 74 hits, but had 71 strikeouts and just 14 walks. Needs to get on base more often, because he is the team’s fastest player. Was 12 of 15 on steals. Will play center field in 2013.3B LB Dantzler Showed solid power, as his .433 slugging percentage ranked second behind Walker’s .525. His 48 RBIs also ranked second. His .262 batting average was fifth on the team.C Grayson Greiner Strong defensive player (two errors) who hung in as a freshman catcher (no easy assignment). But while his .392 slugging percentage ranked third among the eight regulars, his .222 batting average was last. LHP Jordan Montgomery Established himself as a legitimate starter (3.62 ERA, 57 strikeouts, 10 walks), and pitched his best game in his last game — Thursday against Arkansas (eight innings, three hits, no runs).
It was not entirely smooth, bridging this slight but significant gap in experience and perspective. After a March 22 loss to Wofford, senior ace pitcher Michael Roth, the team’s most vocal leader, spoke in a frustrating tone about the first month of the season.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “As a team, we need to be a little bit tougher. We need to grow up a little bit, and we need to grow up fast.”
The next three games were no easier, as USC dropped two to Florida and found itself 17-7 and 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks scored four runs or fewer 13 times in those first 24 games. Keep that up, coach Ray Tanner knew, and USC would be in trouble.
After the Florida series, USC closed SEC play 17-6 and went 28-10 overall to make its third straight College World Series. In those 38 games, USC scored four runs or fewer just 13 times, but continued to lean heavily on its pitching, particularly Roth and Jordan Montgomery, a freshman who gave Roth the toughness he was seeking and grew up fast.
Roth and Montgomery helped pitch USC into the World Series’ best-of-three finals, as the Gamecocks won three elimination games in two days last week. They were 4-1 in this Omaha trip, but had cracked the four-run mark just once, in their opening win over Florida.
Tanner did not hesitate when asked, before the championship series against Arizona and its potent offense, if USC could realistically expect to become the second ever team to win three straight national titles if it didn’t score more than four runs.
“Probably not,” Tanner said. Sure enough, Arizona beat USC 5-1 on Sunday and 4-1 on Monday to win the title. The Wildcats never even had to throw their ace, Kurt Heyer.
The Gamecocks hit .181 and totaled 12 runs in their final six games at this World Series. When it ended Monday night and Arizona’s players streamed onto the field, Roth and Montgomery — USC’s past and future — stood next to each other outside the dugout.
“I don’t think I was saying much,” Roth said. “But he just came up to me and said congratulations. And I just told him (to) just keep getting better, keep getting after it.”
Montgomery is one of several reasons for the Gamecocks to feel optimistic about the future, especially about its arms. He and fellow starting pitcher Colby Holmes, a rising senior, will return. Like Montgomery, this year’s freshman starters — left fielder Tanner English, shortstop Joey Pankake and catcher Grayson Greiner — will all be around for 2013 and 2014, before they become eligible for the Major League Baseball draft.
English will move to center to replace Evan Marzilli. Kyle Martin, a freshman designated hitter this season who showed flashes of power, will take over for Christian Walker at first base. Rising senior Tyler Webb had an excellent year as a setup reliever (1.56 ERA), but Roth and closer Matt Price — two of the best pitchers in school and College World Series history — will not be easily replaced. Nor will the leadership and steady demeanor of right fielder Adam Matthews.
USC loses just two of its top six hitters: Walker, who led the team with a .321 batting average, and Marzilli, who was third at .284. If the Gamecocks want to make a serious run at another national title, they have to perform better offensively than they did this year, when they hit .265, had one .300 hitter and averaged 5.1 runs. In 2011, USC hit .294, had three .300 hitters (two of whom departed after the season) and averaged 6.1 runs.
USC’s No. 2 hitter this year, English, batted .298, but he couldn’t take advantage of his prodigious speed often enough because he had 71 strikeouts. Pankake, fourth on the team in average (.264), handled himself well at times, but he hit just .184 in the NCAA tournament, including .103 in Omaha.
On Monday, the game was tied at 1 with two outs in the eighth inning, and USC had a runner on third base. Pankake was up, seeking his fourth hit in Omaha. He struck out looking on a 3-2 pitch and gritted his teeth in frustration as he walked away.
After the game, he was able to swallow his disappointment and understand how important this World Series experience was for USC’s future.
“This would be awesome any year of your college career,” he said. “It’s a great experience, a great opportunity to have. I’m proud of my team. We fought to get here and it wasn’t easy.”
The biggest thing he learned here: “There’s a lot of failure. You’ve got to overcome it.”
A few feet away, Walker, soon to be part of USC’s past, wore his uniform for the last time and reflected on his three seasons, and what he thinks will come next for the Gamecocks. A trumpet version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was playing at TD Ameritrade Park. Its sound hit the ear with the somberness of “Taps.”
“Three years, three trips to Omaha,” Walker said. “Two of them, I was lucky enough to end up with a ring. Not many people can say that. Overall, it was such a great ride, but it was still a little disappointing for us.
“I’m glad that (the freshmen) got to experience this now. It’s always awesome seeing someone come to Omaha for the first time. I’m sure we’ll have no problem getting back in future years.”