OMAHA, Neb. – The South Carolina baseball team plans on taking a different route to a national championship this season.
One year after winning the College World Series by traveling through the losers’ bracket, the Gamecocks are winding their way through the winners’ bracket. After defeating top-seeded Virginia 7-1 Tuesday night at TD Ameritrade Park, they find themselves one win away from the NCAA title series.
“I'm ecstatic to be in the position that we're in right now, but as I told our players afterwards, we won our first two, but that's not the ultimate here,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “You've got to keep winning and be ready to go tomorrow. We'll have a little workout and try to be a good team when we play again.”
It’s the first time that USC has won the first two games in Omaha since the 1977 CWS, something they also did in the 1975 CWS. Both of those teams reached the national championship game before falling.
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“It feels good. I mean, everybody, of course, is trying to be 2-0,” USC center fielder Jackie Bradley said. “It puts you in a good spot. But we know that we're a long way from where we need to be. It's still early. We're not taking anything for granted, but we're in a good situation right now and we're going to try to take advantage of it as much as possible.”
The fourth-seeded Gamecocks (52-14) won their eighth consecutive CWS game – six last season and two this season – to move into the bracket’s prime real estate Friday at 7 p.m. They will play the winner of Thursday’s elimination game between Virginia (55-11) and Cal (38-22) for the right to go to the best-of-three championship round. Cal or Virginia would need to beat USC twice to advance.
“We played probably one of our better games of the year tonight, and we certainly needed it playing a team the quality of Virginia,” Tanner said. “We pitched extremely well. We played really tough defense, (and) had some timely hitting. We really probably can't play any better than that.”
SEC rival Florida, which shared the conference regular-season championship with USC, has jumped out to a 2-0 start in its half of the bracket and awaits the winner of the elimination game between Vanderbilt and North Carolina. South Carolina has now won 13 postseason games in a row, six to finish the 2010 CWS and seven since the start of this season’s NCAA tournament.
The Gamecocks knocked around Virginia right-hander Will Roberts (11-2), who lasted just 3 1/3 innings in his shortest start of the year. They tagged him for eight hits – five of the extra-base variety – in building a six-run lead by the fourth inning.
Jake Williams led off the fourth with a triple to the fence in right-center and scored on Evan Marzilli’s double to left-center. Roberts’ night ended after a sacrifice bunt, and Christian Walker greeted reliever Cody Winiarski with a double down the left-field line on the first pitch to give USC that 6-0 lead.
“We really didn't play well enough to beat that good of a team today,” Roberts said.
Sophomore right-hander Colby Holmes held the Cavaliers in check for 4 1/3 innings. Holmes, who tied a career high with seven strikeouts, allowed a solo home run to John Hicks in the fourth and left with the bases loaded in the fifth.
But reliever John Taylor came on to throw a 1-2-3 double-play ball on his second pitch to escape the jam. That proved to be Virginia’s last best chance to climb back into the game. Taylor (7-1) pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and one walk, in the longest stint of his two-year USC career to shut down the Cavaliers.
The USC offense exploded for 13 hits, led by Brady Thomas and Adrian Morales with three. Walker, who had two RBIs, and Bradley added two hits each.
“We did a good job tonight on the offensive side for sure,” Tanner said.
The defense sparkled as well, including an amazing seventh-inning stop by second baseman Scott Wingo on a ground ball up the middle that he flipped with his glove hand to shortstop Peter Mooney, who spun and nearly completed the double play with a strong throw. The Gamecocks made no errors and turned two double plays.
“They've been doing that all year. I'm very thankful to have my older guys who have that experience,” said Taylor, who got 12 groundball outs. “There were a few balls that I thought should have gone up the middle or would have if Wingo wasn't there.”
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor agreed wholeheartedly.
“Their infield defense was tremendous tonight,” O’Connor said. “That's what it takes at this time of the year when you're playing other great clubs you have to be able to pitch, and you have to play great infield defense.”
South Carolina jumped on top with three runs in the first inning thanks to some sloppy defense by the Cavaliers. It all started when Virginia third baseman Steven Proscia booted Walker’s two-out ground ball. Bradley quickly followed by lacing Roberts’ next pitch into right-center for a double to score the run, his first RBI since Apr. 19 against the College of Charleston. Morales then singled to right to drive in Bradley and advanced to third when the Cavaliers made another error trying to catch him rounding first on the play. Thomas upped the lead to 3-0 by driving a double off the center-field wall.
“South Carolina, really, quite frankly beat us in every phase of the game tonight,” O’Connor said. “Overall, we just didn't do the fundamental things that it takes to win a college baseball game at this level.”
Three consecutive two-out singles by Morales, Thomas and Mooney off Roberts in the third inning gave USC a 4-0 lead.
Bradley, who was playing his second game after returning from a wrist injury, moved into the cleanup spot and looked like his former self after struggling earlier in the season. He believes the Gamecocks are hitting their stride.
“We're just having fun out there. We're all pretty loose as a team,” Bradley said. “We're just going to keep going out there and battling, and that's the way we play.”
Ray Tanner postgame
Brady Thomas, Colby Holmes postgame
Scott Wingo, Adrian Morales postgame