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June 13, 2010

What a blast: Walker’s homer sends USC to College World Series

Box score at the end of story

Update: Blake Cooper okay to pitch in CWS.

Christian Walker stepped to the plate in the eighth inning with two on and two outs and the South Carolina baseball trailing Coastal Carolina by two.

One big swing later, the baseball was in transit over the BB&T Coastal Field left-field bleachers on the way to 21st Avenue, and the Gamecocks were on their way to Omaha for the ninth College World Series trip in school history courtesy of a 10-9 victory.

The freshman first baseman admitted a home run was in the back of his mind as he got ready to hit late Sunday afternoon. The same went for everyone in the park wearing garnet, including USC coach Ray Tanner as he gave Walker a piece of advice.

“Everyone was thinking that. He said, ‘If you see one, crush it,’” Walker said.

That he did.

“That was definitely one of the better jogs I’ve taken in my life,” Walker said. “I was just making sure I touched all the bases.”

With his seventh home run of the season, he propelled the Gamecocks (48-15) to their first College World Series visit since 2004. In the process, he crushed the hopes of the No. 4 national seed Chanticleers (55-10), who came up short in successive Super Regional games while seeking their first trip to Omaha.

“I have utmost respect for coach Gilmore and his team. It’s certainly one of the better teams we played the entire season, and we play in a great conference,” Tanner said. “We were very fortunate. We just kept fighting, and they kept fighting. We were just one run better two days in a row.”

USC showed the most fight at the end. After Whit Merrifield grounded into a double play in the eighth to leave the bases empty and with USC trailing 9-7, Jackie Bradley started the winning rally by drawing a full-count walk from Coastal reliever Austin Fleet (6-2).

Adrian Morales followed by ripping a first-pitch fastball for a double into left that put runners on second and third.

Tanner had some words of advice for Morales before his plate appearance as well.

“I said, ‘Adrian, you’ve got to have a quality at-bat here. We can’t hit a three-run homer if you’re not on base. Get on base and let’s see what happens here,’” Tanner said.

What happened was Walker’s first homer since May 12. He told the media he hit a fastball not long after Coastal coach Gary Gilmore had said the pitch from Fleet was a hanging slider. Walker smiled and said it looked like a fastball.

The homer capped a high-scoring affair that became a battle of the bullpens. USC starter Sam Dyson didn’t survive the second inning, and Coastal starter Cody Wheeler didn’t make it out of the fourth. The Gamecocks used seven pitchers, with freshman Ethan Carter getting the win after pitching the top of the eighth. Matt Price retired three Chants in a row in the ninth to claim his second consecutive save and 10th of the season.

Along the way, the Gamecocks came back from deficits of 5-2, 7-5 and 9-7, leads that Coastal built behind homers from Rico Noel, Taylor Motter and Daniel Bowman.

Bradley said the best word to describe this USC team is resilient.

“You’ve got to find a way to minimize certain types of situations, and we were able to do that in the end,” he said. “Sometimes our pitchers aren’t going to be on for us, and we’ve got to win a game 9-8 or 15-14. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to get it done.”

Morales said it helped that the Gamecocks had won Game 1.

“They were on their heels. We weren’t,” he said. “It seemed like we played a little more relaxed and were able to get the job done.” Coastal, meanwhile, was left to deal with a demoralizing defeat.

“Omaha has never been as far away as it feels this minute,” Gilmore said.

Added second baseman Tommy La Stella: “We thought we had the game won. “To lose it in that fashion is devastating.”

Tanner credited a deep, veteran team that finds different contributors every game. Senior Nick Ebert, who has not played much lately, came off the bench to line an RBI single in the sixth to cut the lead to 7-6.

“You talk about really putting the team first. This group has been able to do that,” Tanner said. “They fight to the final out, and it was a classic finish for us today.”

USC won its first Super Regional on the road after losses in 2001, ’06 and ’07, but it had more than its fair share of fans among the sellout crowds of 6,599 both days at the beach. Returning to the College World Series brought Tanner some relief from the pressure that goes with the program’s expectations.

“We went three years in a row (2002-04), and it’s only 2010. It’s been six years, but a lot of people think it’s been 25 years,” Tanner said. “I get reminded of that quite often. I try to keep it in perspective.”

Bradley can’t wait for the experience of playing at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha for the first time.

“People say you can’t explain it,” he said, “and you really can’t.”

Video from The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News

USC vs. Coastal Carolina box score

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