Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Sweet Sound of the Metal Ping Brings A Ring

When you think of college sports, baseball is not one of the first ones to come to mind. Everyone always thinks of football, basketball, soccer and some may even bring up the Frozen Four. Yet, the NCAA Tournament for baseball may actually be just as exciting, if not more exciting than the Big Dance and one school in particular took their fans on a wild ride that won’t soon be forgotten.

In the interest of full disclosure, I attend the school that is now home to the College World Series Championship, The University of South Carolina, so there has been plenty to cheer about in this regard. The Gamecocks baseball squad is very much a story of heart, determination and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

South Carolina came into the NCAA Tournament in a bit of a tailspin, having lost 4 out of 5, including the SEC East Title to Florida in a three-game series in Columbia on the final weekend of the regular season.

They were rewarded for their overall body of work in the regular season, as a regional host for the first round. In their first game they trailed to the four seed in their region, and a team with a losing record, Bucknell, 5-4, before exploding for five runs in the bottom of the eighth. The next night against The Citadel, they trailed 4-2 in the seventh, before scoring five runs in the top of the inning to grab the lead and never look back. They were in a battle with Virginia Tech before blowing that game open with a six-run sixth inning.

So, from there, the Gamecocks traveled down to the beach, Myrtle Beach, to take on the national four seed, Coastal Carolina. In game one, South Carolina jumped out to a 4-0 lead and then held on for dear life in the later innings, including closer Matt Price working out of a bases loaded, no out jam in the eighth. The next day, in a see-saw battle, trailing 9-7 in the bottom of the eighth, the Gamecocks rallied to get two men on, before freshman Christian Walker, belted a three-run homer to put the Gamecocks ahead for good and a trip to Omaha.

Fast forward to Omaha, the Gamecocks lose a heartbreaking, rain-delay filled game to Oklahoma, 4-3, in the opener (in which they left the bases loaded in both the 8th and 9th innings) and immediately have their backs against the wall. The next game, against the overall number one seed, Arizona State, is an unexpected blowtorching by the Gamecocks, 11-4. Two nights later, Oklahoma and South Carolina go to extra innings and Oklahoma takes the lead in the 12th inning. The Gamecocks are down to their final out, then their final strike, in the person of sophomore center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (their best hitter). With a runner on second, Oklahoma pitches Bradley carefully and gets to a full count before Bradley slaps a single to right to tie the game and two batters later senior Brady Thomas wins the game with a RBI single of his own, scoring Bradley and eliminating the Oklahoma Sooners.

This brings the Gamecocks, to a showdown with their bitter, in-state rivals, the Clemson Tigers. Having to beat them twice, to advance, Gamecocks Head Coach Ray Tanner, turns to a situational lefty Michael Roth. A kid who had not started a game since April of 2009 and is often only used for one or two batters at a time. All Roth does, is throw a complete game, three-hitter to send the Gamecocks into a one game showdown with Clemson.

In 2002, Clemson and South Carolina were in a similar scenario, where South Carolina needed to beat Clemson twice to advance to the College World Series. They did so and Gamecock fans were well aware that history could be repeating itself. Clemson fans tried hard not to think of it. Clemson and South Carolina are separated by about 130 miles and the two programs are rivals and while there is hatred among the fans, there is respect on the field. Throwing junior Sam Dyson on short rest, South Carolina battles in a tie game until squeezing two runs across in the eighth inning to take a 4-2 lead and hold on for a 4-3 win.

The final of the College World Series is a best of three affair. In game one, South Carolina rode the arm of senior right-hander Blake Cooper to a 7-1 win. Offensively, it wasn’t flashy, lots of bunts, bleeders and bloops but it got the job done and put the Gamecocks within one win of their first national title in baseball. Tuesday night, Michael Roth took the mound and kept the Gamecocks in the game early. Yet, they entered the eighth down 1-0 and in typical gamecock fashion this year, got a runner on, moved him up, made contact, got some help from the UCLA defense and tied the game. Then in the 11th inning, following a wild pitch that moved Scott Wingo to second and bunt that moved him to third, Whit Merrifield got the base hit heard round Columbia and delivered only the second ever NCAA title for South Carolina in any sport, and the first in any male sport.

Head Coach Ray Tanner is a veteran baseball man having been at South Carolina for 14 years and previously was at NC State for nine years as a head coach and eight as an assistant. Tanner has been to the College World Series four times with the Gamecocks. This team takes its cue from the headman who is a jokester at times but provides the steady, strong and forceful hand when needed.

Many teams had the flashy players, the big names, the high draft picks, but this was a team in every sense of the word. The team was paced offensively by junior right fielder Whit Merrifield (drafted in the ninth round by Kansas City), sophomore centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and freshman first baseman Christian Walker. Bradley is a five-tool outfielder, who is already being projected to be a first round pick in next year’s draft, and after his coming out party in the College World Series, it’s hard not to see that happening. Freshman left fielder Evan Marzelli provided a late season spark since being inserted into the top of the order at the start of the NCAA Tournament. One of the hallmarks of this club has been its defensive prowess led by senior catcher and catcher Kyle Enders and the double play combo of senior shortstop Bobby Haney (drafted in the 22nd round by San Francisco) and junior second baseman Scott Wingo. For years, Tanner’s clubs were known for waiting on the three-run bomb, but this club catches the ball and is extremely solid on the mound and in the field.

On the mound, the Gamecocks were paced by senior right-hander Blake Cooper (drafted in the 12th round by Arizona) and junior right-hander Sam Dyson (drafted in the 4th round by Toronto). Dyson has the better pure stuff but Cooper knows how to pitch, constantly pounding the inside part of the plate and mixing his off-speed pitches in with a mid-80’s fastball with movement. The Gamecocks bullpen was also extremely important led by relievers: junior Jose Mata; junior John Taylor, a sidearmer; sophomore Michael Roth, a lefty; and freshman closer Matt Price, who shut the door in the late innings.

The Gamecocks changed from their traditional formula of long ball to pitching and defense and as a result have a NCAA Title in their grasp in the last College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. They didn’t just do it for themselves, Tanner, alumni and student body. They did it for Bayler Teal, a seven-year old lifelong Gamecock fan, who had become close with the team, before dying of cancer last Thursday night. The Gamecocks triumph in Omaha was about much more than ending the misery and wait til’ next year mentality that an entire fan base across all sports had grown tired of hearing. It was much simpler than that; they made a little boy’s wish come true even if he never got the chance to see it.

Many heroes emerged on the road to Omaha for the Gamecocks and more came forward while they rolled off six straight wins after starting the Series with their backs against the wall. Baseball is a team sport and there was no greater example of that the 2010 South Carolina Gamecocks, your College World Series Champions.

History In The Making-Darius Rucker