Thursday, June 30, 2011

South Carolina Gamecocks: 2011 National Champions

The following has nothing to do with music and everything to do with college baseball. Continue at your own risk.

You may remember this post from exactly 365 days ago. It had nothing to do with music, but instead chronicled the University of South Carolina's unlikely run through the 2010 College World Series, culminating in their first men's national championship of any kind. It was a major coup for a school whose athletic programs sport long histories of accomplishing very little. But going against any number of odds, including no national seeding, losing our first game in Omaha, and just being the Gamecocks--our team banded together to take one home for the garnet and black nation.

Does anyone ever bet on a repeat? The odds of doing so are slim, no matter how good a team is. Too many unknowns, potential mishaps, injuries. Plain old slumps. It can all happen. And you know what? It did happen.

But the team persevered.

The 2011 Gamecocks were ranked #8 in the preseason by ESPN. We returned a handful of players, good ones, to our batting line-up. Our great losses were in the rotation, when we lost two starters to graduation. But we managed to fill our gaps. Michael Roth, who'd staged a coming out party in the CWS, became a legitimate ace. Our other starting spots materialized throughout the season, and our bullpen was as sturdy as it gets. But injuries assaulted our team as the year progressed, at an almost unfair pace. At one point, our entire starting outfield was sidelined. We had a pitcher playing left field. Our future first round pick, Jackie Bradley Jr., was well into a mediocre season before breaking a bone in his wrist and missing the latter half of SEC play. He was not expected to return for the postseason.

But the team persevered.

Coach Ray Tanner finessed the line-up every night. He knew his team, put faith in his guys, and always made it work. Early in SEC play, we went into Gainesville and took the series #1 ranked Florida. We did the same, at home, against #1 ranked Vanderbilt. Walk-off wins here, dominating sweeps there--the team was doing it, despite the injuries. The Gamecocks finished the regular season tied atop the SEC, earned the top seed in the conference tournament, and ranked #1 overall. But like last year, they hardly showed up for the SEC tournament. One win was followed by two straight losses, and we were out of the tournament. Once again, our momentous advance was sutured off by a tournament flop.

But the team persevered.

When the regional seedings were announced, more than a few pundits had the Columbia regional pegged as the most treacherous. The Gamecocks were the #4 overall seed, and drew a dangerous Stetson, North Carolina State, and Georgia Southern--the latter a team that had some impressive out of conference wins on the season, and boasted the NCAA's top home run hitter. Should we survive the regional, our likely opposition in the super regional was Clemson. We'd won our regular season series with Clemson by a hair, but they were a different team now, having picked up steam late in the season. Our road to Omaha would not be simple.

But the get the idea.

The regional opening 2-1 win over Georgia Southern was the closest game the boys would play before Omaha. Carolina took the next two over Stetson to advance to the supers against...Connecticut? The upstart Huskies blew out Clemson in consecutive games to end the Tigers' 2011 campaign. So much for the postseason rivalry match-up. The Cocks took care of a talented UConn team in two games, and the ticket to Omaha was punched.

Would our stay in Omaha be as stressful as last year? Ostensibly, no. We drew the easier half of the bracket, despite drawing #1 overall seed UVA. But Florida and Vanderbilt were on the other side, meaning we'd only have to face one of them were we to reach the finals. Even so, stress abounded. Our first half-inning in Omaha was atrocious. We allowed four unearned runs to Texas A&M. But as if scripted, we tied it in the bottom half of the inning. It was the first of a handful of instances of the Gamecocks playing with fire but never getting burned.

That game went down to the wire, with no team scoring again til the bottom of the ninth, when the Cocks loaded the bases with no outs. Senior second baseman (and scorer of last year's championship-winning run) Scott Wingo launched a game winning single off the right-field wall. Game over.

The Gamecocks spanked #1 Virginia 7-1 in the next game, and were then one win from the finals. UVA turned around and dismantled Cal in an elimination game, meaning we'd have beat the Cavaliers once more to reach the finals. Thus brings us to the first of two consecutive extra inning, nutty games.

The game was a high-stress affair, with both teams escaping trouble repeatedly, especially in the top of the 13th. This is when Virginia loaded the bases with no outs. Just like we'd done to Texas A&M five days earlier. The only thing we had going for us was that Virginia was the visiting team, meaning we'd get another go on offense regardless. But at the rate runs were coming in this one, the feeling was that one was all it would take.

As a fan, there's nothing so demoralizing as seeing the other team load the bases with no outs. They're virtually guaranteed a run. Not always though. Matt Price, our stud closer who had been pitching since the 8th inning (unheard of for a closer,) blew away the next batter. He then induced a double play, via a line out and a quick toss to second. And wouldn't you know it, the very next inning, we scored on consecutive UVA errors. Game over. On to the finals, where we'd face a dangerous Florida team.

If the second Virginia game was a 9/10 on the stress meter, this one broke the needle. Florida was up 1-0 for most of the game, their starting pitcher Hudson Randall blowing away virtually every batter he faced. But in the eighth inning, on two strikes, Scott Wingo poked a dribbler up the middle and pushed a run across, tying the game 1-1. The next inning, it happened again. Florida loaded the bases. With no outs. And this time, they were the home team. All they needed was a run and it's over. Miraculously, John Taylor induced consecutive ground balls. The first necessitated a diving stop by--who else--Scott Wingo. He winged it home, getting the force out, but everyone else was safe. Bases still loaded. The next pitch was grounded right at Wingo. He went home with it to get the force there, and catcher Robert Beary fired to first for the (admittedly questionable) third out. Regardless, the Cocks made it out alive.

The next inning, the Cocks managed to stave off another walk-off situation. With runners on first and second and two outs, a base hit to left field forced left fielder Jake Williams--not the strongest arm on the planet--to come up throwing. It had to be perfect, and it was. Tag applied. Runner out trying to score from second. Another bullet dodged. And, amazingly, it was another series of errors in the top of the 11th that allowed Carolina to score the go-ahead run. We shut Florida down in the bottom of the inning, and that was that.

Even though we still had one more to win, you got the sense that the series was as good as over. It was a gut-wrenching loss for the Gators, having come so close to winning on several occasions. But that's been our team's MO all year: making whatever play the situation called for, no matter how unlikely. Nothing was off limits, as long as everyone was on the same page. An error or a pitching miscue could be accounted for. If we needed a run back, we got it. If we needed to get out of a jam, we did that too.

The final game wasn't quite as exciting as last year's clincher, a fact that was welcomed by Gamecock fans everywhere. The team never trailed. Michael Roth pitched a gem, going over 120 pitches on 3 days rest. Matt Price--who'd gone 90+ pitches against Virginia--came back in to save both final games. Oh, and the final out? A fly ball, caught by Jackie Bradley Jr. Defying predictions, Bradley made it back to Omaha after that broken wrist held him out of action for most of the SEC schedule. He struggled to find his swing, but his ability to track down balls in the outfield is staggering.

By the way, Jackie wasn't the only Gamecock nursing a broken hand. All-American first baseman Christian Walker was nearly ruled out of the finals, having sustained a broken bone in his glove-hand against Virginia. But he played anyway, and went 4 for 9 in the finals, scoring the game winning run in game 1. Just another example of this team adapting to injuries.

Aside from becoming only the 6th team to repeat in the College World Series, the Cocks took home a few records as well: their 10-game CWS winning streak and 16-game postseason winning streak are both the longest ever. Not sure if it's a record, but the pitching staff posted a ludicrous 0.88 ERA in the CWS. Our bats weren't exactly on fire, but they came alive when we needed it. Lots of close games, won in stressful fashion. I wonder if there's ever been a clean sweep through the playoffs in any sport that seemed to take as much effort as this one did.

It's going to be tough to watch the boys next year without the likes of Jackie Bradley, Scott Wingo (the '10 and '11 CWS Most Valuable Players respectably,) gruff third baseman Adrian Morales, and lights-out set-up guy John Taylor. We may also lose Price to the majors, and a few other guys are graduating. Michael Roth has all but confirmed his return to Columbia, and we have a lot of young talented pitchers returning. Christian Walker will be back. Assistant head coach Michael Holbrook, a coveted name in the coaching carousel, turned down offers to stay at Carolina.

But there was a certain something about this year's team that I'll miss. A sort of synergy that made them untouchable. Setbacks seemed to make them stronger. They thrived on adversity. Never truly an underdog, but they had to earn every win. Last year, our road to the championship had a "backs agains the wall" feel to it. This year, we just surged ahead, took our punches, ran the gauntlet, flirted with disaster but never flinched, and took home the hardware.

Congrats, guys. See you at the parade tomorrow.

1 comment:

Adam J. said...

I'm just glad you didn't use the word "battle".