COLUMBIA — South Carolina had already scored three runs in improbable fashion Saturday. But these two runs, and the way they crossed the plate, were worthy of a Christmas morning celebration by the Gamecocks.
They burst onto the field, toward their pint-sized sophomore center fielder, Tanner English. He is the furthest thing you will find from a home run hitter, but here he came, jogging closer to home plate. He had just hit his first career homer, in the third inning against Liberty. This was not a slap hitter’s homer, not a low line drive or a fly ball caught by the wind. This was no-doubt shot over the left-field wall that fell out of the night sky and disappeared into an access tunnel.
USC’s players congregated near the plate and crowded around English after he crossed it, embracing him and rejoicing in a stress-free evening at Carolina Stadium that put them within one step of an NCAA tournament super regional.
The numbers of greatest consequence were USC 19, Liberty 3. The stats that raised the most eyebrows: In USC’s 131 NCAA tournament games (92 wins) this tied its biggest blowout victory, 16-0 over The Citadel in the 2001 Columbia Regional.
But the figure that best summarized how everything turned in USC’s favor Saturday was 398. That’s how many at-bats it took English to hit his homer. Not that he has been an odious hitter. But he is 5-9 and 160 pounds, so slugging isn’t his forte. He had as many strikeouts as hits (112) before the homer, and 90 of those hits were singles.
In the end, English’s homer was merely window dressing. It gave the Gamecocks a 7-0 lead after they went up 3-0 in the first. More important for the Gamecocks: Jordan Montgomery was every bit the pitcher they need him to be in this tournament. He allowed three hits in seven innings, walked nobody and struck out a career-best 11.
While extending their NCAA tournament home winning streak to 26 games, since 2002, the Gamecocks took control of their regional. Liberty plays Clemson at 1 p.m. today, and the Gamecocks get the winner at 7 p.m. Sunday, with freshman Jack Wynkoop on the mound. If USC wins, it advances to a super regional. If it loses, it has a rematch Monday night.
Liberty starter Brooks Roy wilted in the first inning, walking in three straight runs with two outs. That was all the help Montgomery needed in his third career NCAA tournament start. Montgomery, a sophomore, won the previous two and looked impressive in both: the regional clincher last year against Clemson and a College World Series elimination game against Arkansas. His career NCAA tournament ERA is now 0.83, with 23 strikeouts and two walks.
Saturday’s result was unexpected. The Flames, the regional’s No. 4 seed, lost two of three games at USC on the season’s first weekend, but all were decided by one run. They surged into Saturday, having won eight of nine games, and six straight. Before those nine, they dropped six of seven. But they faced a daunting task with playing USC in a home-field postseason game. The Gamecocks entered with a 56-8 all-time record in NCAA tournament home games.
Moreover, they’ve made a habit these past three seasons of winning dramatic tournament games. USC entered Saturday 31-4 in the tournament since the start of 2010. Thirteen of those wins came in games that USC was either tied or trailed after the sixth inning or later.
The latest theatrics came Friday night, when the Gamecocks got four runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat No. 4 seed Saint Louis 7-3, after the Billikens evened the score at three with two runs in the top of the eighth. The Gamecocks’ surge improved them to 10-1 in tournament games since 2010 that were tied after the sixth inning or later.
The only loss came in the last game of last year’s College World Series finals, a 4-1 loss that was tied at one entering Arizona’s top of the ninth. For all the firsts the Gamecocks accomplished over the past three seasons, when they won national titles in 2010 and 2011, they have never reached four straight College World Series. This year, they chase that milestone.
As they inched closer Saturday night, they could breathe easier than they did Friday. Tonight presents the largest stage yet for Wynkoop, who hasn’t shrunk from a challenge yet, just like another mellow left-hander last year – Montgomery. The faces change, the wins ebb and flow with thrillers and blowouts, but at this time of year, in their ballpark, the Gamecocks roll on.