CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Game 3 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional might stagger deep into tonight, the dramatic way South Carolina and North Carolina go about their postseason baseball business.
But there was nothing slow about Tanner English on Sunday in the Gamecocks' 8-0 victory in Game 2 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional. The 5-9, 160-pound center fielder ran around the field at Boshamer Stadium like a man in a hurry to get back to Omaha.
Just in time, the game-breaking star coaches and fans haven't seen often enough during a season scuffed by injury and inconsistency.
Better fast than never.
English drove in the first Gamecocks run with a bunt single down the first-base line.
He recorded the first out of the ninth inning with a diving catch in left center. An “incredible” grab, said USC coach Chad Holbrook.
Between, there were three stolen bases, two runs and another single to help the Gamecocks get one win away from a fourth straight trip to the College World Series.
“I was just trying to do all the little things right, man,” English said. “Just helping the team any way I could. Whether it was getting the bunt down or making a catch in the outfield. I was just trying not to do too much and just play my role.”
It was textbook little fast guy stuff, nine innings worth of English using his extraordinary speed to nag the NCAA tournament's No. 1 national seed.
English entered the game hitting .269 with only six stolen bases in 11 attempts this year, way below expectations for the sophomore from Murrells Inlet. He hit .298 and stole 12 bases as a freshman.
The English ceiling is a right-handed Brett Gardner. You know, the New York Yankees' outfielder who turned small ball at the College of Charleston into big league security.
A shoulder injury that kept English out of the lineup for nine starts during the middle of the season partly explains his sluggish 2013, but that's not all.
“To be honest with you, I probably have not coached him very well,” Holbrook said. “He's a gifted athlete. When I played, I kind of wanted the coach to give me the green light and I could run whenever I wanted. I can't give Tanner the green light because he gets tight and he gets nervous and he gets a little jumpy. I have to tell him when to run.
“And it took me … How many games have we played?”
South Carolina is 42-19.
“It took me too many games to figure that out,” Holbrook said. “You just have to let him run.”
Holbrook knows base running. The former Tar Heel stole 98 stolen bases, still second-best in North Carolina history.
“He's not a gifted runner yet, but he will be in time,” Holbrook said. “But, boy, he can really run. He's one of the fastest kids, if not the fastest kid, I've ever coached.”
Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said English's safety squeeze bunt was “indefensible.”
“That's how well he can run,” Fox said. “You don't see too many kids that can run like that from the right side.”
English — and Holbrook — took advantage of a North Carolina injury likely to impact strategy again in Game 3; the Tar Heels are without starting catcher Matt Roberts, who suffered a thumb injury in a Chapel Hill Regional game against Florida Atlantic.
But English saved his best for a vast green gap in the outfield. He took a tumble but held on to a line drive off the bat of Skye Bolt, the North Carolina sophomore who got the game-winning hit in Game 1.
“I just put my head down and ran and looked back up and saw that I had a chance to get it,” English said. “It went in my glove, that's all I really remember.”
Something has to give between clutch Carolinas in Game 3.
South Carolina mastered the art of clutch June baseball over the previous three seasons. Or did you forget Scott Wingo starting a 4-2-3 game-saving double play in the same College World Series in which the Gamecocks scored game-winning runs against Virginia and Florida on errors?
North Carolina over the last few weeks has won in 14 innings against Clemson, 18 innings against N.C. State and 13 innings against Florida Atlantic.
But you have to like the Gamecocks' chances a lot better with Tanner English playing his role as a pest.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.
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