OMAHA, Neb. – Down to his last strike, Jackie Bradley breathed life back into South Carolina’s baseball season with a two-out, game-tying RBI single in the 12th inning against Oklahoma.
Moments later, the fleet center fielder was rounding third and headed for home on Brady Thomas’ single up the middle to give the Gamecocks a thrilling 3-2 win over the Sooners Thursday night in a College World Series elimination game at Rosenblatt Stadium.
“It was an incredible win,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “Just never-give-up day.”
The clutch hits, which had been missing most of the night, advanced USC (50-16) into a showdown with archrival Clemson (45-23) at 9 tonight, with the Tigers serving as the home team. Sophomore left-hander Michael Roth (1-1, 1.37 ERA) will start for the Gamecocks.
“We just kept scrapping and trying to stay in a position to win,” Tanner said. “I just kept thinking, you know, we lost a close one (Sunday). Maybe now it’s our turn to win a close one.”
The Gamecocks, who claimed the fifth 50-win season in program history, must defeat the Tigers both Friday and Saturday nights to advance to the national championship series. The same situation occurred at the 2002 CWS, when USC did just that against Clemson to reach the title game against Texas, which the Gamecocks lost. The Tigers won two-of-three against USC in a March series this season.
“Now it’s a national stage versus the in-state rivalry,” Tanner said. “So I know that they’re excited to be where they are, and we’re excited to still be playing.”
The winning rally started with Robert Beary hitting a single off Oklahoma closer Ryan Duke (3-2). But Duke struck out Evan Marzilli and got Whit Merrifield to pop up before Bradley, who was 0-for-5 at that point, worked the count to 3-2.
With Beary on second after a stolen base during Merrifield’s at-bat, the sophomore star then grounded a ball past Oklahoma first baseman Cameron Seitzer into right field to score the run, a play that also extended Bradley’s hitting streak to 19 games and upped his team-high RBI total to 58.
“I was fortunate enough to get the big hit at the end of the game, just fighting and battling,” Bradley said. “I knew I was going to get my chance, and I made it count.”
After first baseman Jeffery Jones drew a walk, Thomas drilled the first pitch he saw from Duke into center as the Gamecocks poured onto the field to celebrate.
“I knew the pressure was all going to be on them. I was just looking for a strike to hit hard,” Thomas said. “I knew a base hit would probably get the run in.”
That hit means the Gamecocks meet the Tigers on the national stage.
“It’s going to be fun,” Bradley said. “Of course, we know who we’re playing, big rivalry and all, but like you said, it’s just playing another baseball game. Just got to win or go home.”
With one swing of the bat to lead off the 12th, Oklahoma catcher Tyler Ogle drilled a solo home run to right-center off the second pitch thrown by reliever Ethan Carter to give the Sooners (50-18) a 2-1 lead. But Tyler Webb (3-2) came on to get the final three outs of the inning and hold Oklahoma right there.
“Our pitching staff has kept us in position the entire season,” Tanner said. “You know that. We haven’t given up a lot.”
USC ace right-hander Blake Cooper pitched valiantly for the Gamecocks on three days rest, his shortest time off between starts all season.
“I was going to put my best guy out there if he said he felt good enough,” Tanner said.
Cooper said he did and confirmed it with his performance. After throwing 67 pitches during Sunday’s rain-delayed 4-3 loss to the Sooners, he came back to handcuff the Oklahoma hitters over 5 2/3 innings. Throwing 97 pitches, Cooper allowed just one run on four hits while striking out six. But he left in the sixth with two runners on and no chance to earn the win after USC hitters failed to put any runs on the board for him.
“I was ready to go. I wanted the game in the balance,” Cooper said.
South Carolina evened the game at 1-1 in the eighth inning. Marzilli led off with a double to left off Oklahoma starter Zach Neal, which ended his night after seven strong innings. Merrifield reached on a sacrifice bunt when third baseman Garrett Buechele bobbled the ball. After Bradley struck out, Christian Walker grounded a single through the left side to score the run. But the Gamecocks could get no more when Thomas and Adrian Morales both lined out to center.
Oklahoma had a chance in the ninth after two runners reached with one out off Matt Price on a dropped popup by Walker at first base and a hit batsman. But USC turned a 4-6-3 double play to end the threat, as Price tossed three hitless, scoreless innings.
South Carolina got the leadoff runner on in the 11th on Walker’s leadoff single, and Kyle Enders drew a two-out walk. But Bobby Haney grounded out to second to end the frame.
Neal retired 14 consecutive USC hitters before Enders drew a two-out walk in the fifth inning. Haney followed with a double down the right-field line to put runners on second and third. The Gamecocks loaded the bases when Neal hit Scott Wingo with a pitch. But the rally died just like that when Marzilli popped out on the first pitch to Buechele in foul territory.
Oklahoma scored first off Cooper in the second inning. Ogle dumped a single into right-field to lead off the frame and went to second on Seitzer’s one-out walk. Caleb Bushyhead, who also had two RBIs in Sunday’s 4-3 win over USC, then drove home Ogle with a single to center.
The Gamecocks missed out on their initial chance to score in the first inning. Marzilli singled to lead off, and with one out, stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by the catcher. But Bradley popped out in foul territory behind the plate, and Walker flied out to right to end the threat.
“This game’s hard. It’s a humbling game,” Tanner said. “You have to face adversity.”
Ray Tanner on the win, on playing Clemson
Brady Thomas, Jackie Bradley Jr. on the victory