Although it took two days, the South Carolina baseball team is on the way back to an NCAA Super Regional for the ninth time in 12 seasons. Fittingly, the game ended with Matt Price on the mound for the Gamecocks, just as it had in so many important games over the past two seasons.
The defending national champions rode a gutsy relief effort by their hard-throwing sophomore closer Monday afternoon to post an 8-2 victory over Stetson in the championship game of the NCAA regional at Carolina Stadium.
The game started Sunday night, but a severe thunderstorm halted play in the fifth inning with USC leading 4-1. Upon their return to the field after a 16-hour, 39-minute delay, the Gamecocks held off the Hatters as Price worked out of a seventh-inning, bases-loaded jam with the game still on the line.
USC (48-14), the No. 4 national seed and top seed in the regional, advances to play Connecticut (45-18-1) at Carolina Stadium on Saturday, Sunday and - if necessary - Monday. The Huskies eliminated USC arch-rival Clemson 14-1 on Monday night.
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Price, who recorded his 17th save, entered the game in the seventh in relief of setup man John Taylor (5-1) with the bases loaded and one out as USC nursed a three-run lead. Stetson’s Robert Crews got one run home after a 10-pitch at-bat with a ground ball when he reached on an errant throw by third baseman Adrian Morales.
With Stetson’s No. 3 and No. 4 hitters and leading RBI men coming to the plate, Price wiggled out of it by inducing Ben Carhart to fly out to right and Nick Rickles to ground out to second. Both hitters made Price work, with seven-pitch at-bats.
“You’ve just got to keep fighting and keep battling against them,” Price said. “They’re fouling off some good pitches and you just don’t want to leave one down the middle so they can hit it hard somewhere.”
USC coach Ray Tanner didn’t hesitate to bring his battle-tested right-hander into the game in the seventh inning.
“You can’t always go three outs or four outs. Sometimes the game gets decided 10 outs before the end,” Tanner said. “That was the difference in the whole ballgame for me.”
Stetson coach Pete Dunn, whose Atlantic Sun champions finished 43-20, also saluted Price, who is expected to be picked in the Major League Baseball draft Tuesday.
“When they brought him in, we know he’s their guy. We had him on the ropes. That’s what good guys do that have been in these situations before. They pitch their way out of it,” Dunn said. “Great pitchers and great ballclubs step up. This is a veteran club with a national championship under their belt. They know how to win.”
The Gamecocks, the SEC regular-season co-champions, put the game away with four runs off four Stetson relievers in the ninth, keyed by Jake Williams’ sacrifice fly, Peter Mooney’s RBI single and Stetson center fielder Spencer Theisen’s two-run error on a dropped fly ball off the bat of Robert Beary.
Beary, the regional’s most valuable player, helped stake the Gamecocks to an early lead with a leadoff triple in the third before scoring on Evan Marzilli’s sacrifice fly. He added an RBI single in the fourth to give USC a 3-1 lead.
“I was locked in,” Beary said. “The only thing you can do as a hitter is hit the ball hard, and that’s what I tried to do this weekend. It worked out for me.”
Christian Walker and Scott Wingo led the 12-hit attack with three singles each, while Beary and Steven Neff each added a pair of hits. Williams and Evan Marzilli, who hit a solo home run to lead off the game Sunday, had two RBIs apiece.
Wingo, the senior second baseman, called USC’s three workmanlike regional wins against Georgia Southern and Stetson twice a good example of the team’s style.
“We play every game like it’s our last. We don’t take anybody lightly,” Wingo said. “We know we have to battle to win. We’ve got a lot of guys that are just scrappy and get down and dirty. That’s what we do.”
The Gamecocks have won nine consecutive postseason games, six in the 2010 College World Series and three in the regional. They also have won 17 consecutive home postseason games dating back to the 2002 Super Regional against Miami, Fla.
They will be hosting their first Super Regional since the 2004 season, when they defeated East Carolina to go to the College World Series. Their last three Super Regional appearances (2006, 2007, 2010) came on the road at Georgia, North Carolina and Coastal Carolina.
Tanner refused to get overly excited about bringing a Super Regional to Carolina Stadium, where USC is 34-4 this season.
“Every game is different, and the time is different than years past so it’s a whole new experience in one way,” he said.
Ray Tanner postgame
Matt Price, Scott Wingo, Robert Beary postgame
Pete Dunn postgame
Jeff Simpson and Sean Emory postgame