Christian Walker doesn’t wear tights and a cape, but he keeps putting the “super” in the NCAA Super Regionals for the South Carolina baseball team.
The sophomore first baseman’s solo homer to start the eighth inning gave USC its first lead, and the Gamecocks added five runs in the ninth for an 8-2 win over Connecticut on Sunday that sent the program to its second consecutive College World Series.
The Gamecocks (50-14), the No. 4 national seed and defending national champions, will play the winner of the Super Regional between Florida State and Texas A&M at 7 p.m. Sunday to kick off their 10th trip to Omaha.
Walker’s performance was reminiscent of his effort in the Super Regional sweep of Coastal Carolina last season, when he hit a game-winning, three-run home run in the Game 2 clincher.
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His line-drive shot Sunday off a changeup by UConn left-hander Greg Nappo landed in the left-field seats. USC coach Ray Tanner told him to look for a changeup in that situation and hit it hard.
“Christian Walker is as good as it gets at our level,” Tanner said.
Walker, who leads USC with a .359 average, 10 homers and 60 RBIs, admitted he enjoys hitting in big situations. But he was happier about helping his team, which had to overcome injuries all season, reach the CWS for the second consecutive season.
“This team battled all year. We went up and down a little bit,” Walker said. “We came back and kept our heads up and played the game the way you want to play.”
Senior right-hander John Taylor (6-1) pitched 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief to record the win, and hard-throwing closer Matt Price pitched two more scoreless innings to pick up his 18th save.
“Coming into that eighth inning, I was trying to locate my pitches and get balls down in the zone and get us back into the ninth so we could get some more runs,” said Price, who got the victory over UCLA in last season’s national title game.
The visiting Gamecocks added five runs, highlighted by Peter Mooney’s two-run double, in the top of the ninth to put the game away.
The Gamecocks have won 11 postseason games in a row, the final six of last season’s CWS and five more this season after winning the Columbia regional and the Super Regional. They closed Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha with an 11-inning walk-off win last summer and now return to open the new TD Ameritrade Park.
“It’s a great feeling to go back to Omaha in the new park,” Price said. “We won it last year in the old park. This is a new group of guys. Last year was last year. This is a new year, and it’s going to be a great one.”
USC also has won 19 consecutive home games in the postseason dating back to the 2002 Super Regional against Miami, Fla. And the Gamecocks capped off the 2011 home schedule with a phenomenal 36-4 record. The last two were especially sweet for Tanner.
“Our guys played their hearts out. We had some guys step up,” he said. “Both games certainly could have gone either way. We’re very fortunate and very happy to be sitting where we are with an opportunity to go back to Omaha to the new ballpark.”
The Huskies took a 2-0 lead in the second inning off USC starter Colby Holmes on four consecutive two-out singles by Nick Ahmed, Doug Elliot, Tim Martin and Billy Ferriter, with Martin and Ferriter collecting the RBIs. As it turned out, that would be all the Huskies, the Big East champions, would get.
“This is the first time all season that I believe we were defeated by a better team,” UConn coach Jim Penders. “They’re a better team than we are right now. We aspire to be the kind of program that they are. We had some opportunities. We left some guys on in big spots. We fought, scratched and clawed.”
The Gamecocks got one run back in the fourth when Brady Thomas doubled to left-center off Nappo (10-3) with one out. Jake Williams delivered a two-out double down the right-field line to cut the lead to 2-1. They tied the game at 2-2 in the sixth when Adrian Morales and Williams started the rally with consecutive one-out singles before Robert Beary dumped an RBI single into center. The scored stayed that way until Walker’s homer in the eighth.
“First of all, you have to give all the credit in the world to South Carolina,” Nappo said. “Great players make adjustments. I wasn’t able to adjust quickly enough tonight.”
It helped that USC worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth when Taylor induced a soft comebacker to the mound that he turned into a huge 1-2-3 double play.
That play sucked the life out of the Huskies and set up USC’s late run to capture its berth in Omaha. Tanner refused to take the credit, however, for guiding the team there for the fifth time in 10 seasons. He pointed to his players instead.
“Players win games. I don’t go between the lines,” Tanner said. “If you can find the right group of players with character and you’ve got enough of them, you’ve got a chance. I believe in that very strongly.”
Postgame: USC coach Ray Tanner
Postgame: USC's Peter Mooney, John Taylor, Matt Price, Christian Walker
Postgame: UConn coach Jim Penders
Postgame: UConn's George Springer, Greg Nappo, Nick Ahmed