OMAHA, Neb. – The South Carolina baseball team keeps finding improbable ways to win games in the College World Series.
Thanks to two throwing errors by Virginia pitcher Cody Winiarski on consecutive bunts in the 13th inning, the Gamecocks won a dramatic 3-2 victory over top seed Virginia Friday night at TD Ameritrade Park to advance to the national championship series.
One season after defeating UCLA to win the NCAA title, the Gamecocks (53-14) will attempt to repeat against SEC rival Florida (53-17) in a best-of-three series that begins Monday at 8 p.m.
“We knew it was going to be like this, didn't expect to be extra innings so much,” USC coach Ray Tanner said.”But this game certainly could have gone either way, and we just kept hanging in there and we were fortunate to get a couple of breaks at the end.”
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Virginia (56-12) saw its best season end when Brady Thomas led off the 13th with a single to center. Adam Matthews came on to pinch-run and went to second when Winiarski threw the ball into center on Peter Mooney’s bunt.
And when Robert Beary followed with another bunt down the third-base line, Winiarski (6-4) fielded it and tried to get Matthews at third. But the throw sailed out of play and Matthews scampered home with the winning run as the USC dugout emptied.
“I mean, it's simple. They wanted to get an out and we weren't able to capitalize on that and just take what they were giving to us,” Winiarski said. “Those are plays we practice every day in practice and just didn't execute.”
Somehow the Gamecocks found a way to win – just as they did in a 12-inning elimination win over Oklahoma last season and an 11-inning victory in the national championship game in the 2010 CWS – despite striking out 18 times. The win also gave USC an NCAA record 14 consecutive wins in postseason play – six last season and eight this season – as well as nine consecutive wins in the CWS, one shy of the record.
“They've been able to perform in the most difficult circumstances,” Tanner said. “We've had some outstanding players at different times step up. And it's all I can say, really. I'm just ecstatic to be part of this group.”
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor was impressed by USC’s toughness.
“Obviously, South Carolina has got something very, very special going on right now,” O’Connor said. “And the way their club is playing, the way they played at the end of the year last year reminded me of when Oregon State went on that run where a couple years in a row they won back-to-back championships. And it just seems like they just find a way.”
USC got to the title series by not losing a game in its half of the bracket, defeating Texas A&M in the opener and Virginia twice. The Gators, who dropped two-of-three to the Gamecocks in the regular season, also didn’t lose on their side of the bracket by beating Texas and then Vanderbilt twice.
“It feels good to be back there and good to get the win tonight,” Thomas said. “I know we'll have two days on before Monday, get some rest and get good workouts in.”
Closer Matt Price (7-3) picked up the win with a workhorse relief effort. He threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings, although he needed to work out of three bases-loaded jams to do it. He gave up seven hits and five walks while throwing 95 pitches, but he didn’t let the Cavaliers cross the plate.
“Matt's been able to make some big pitches,” Tanner said. “They swung the bat well against him. They got a few hits and got some runners on. He was able to make pitches when he needed to to get some big outs. But he's been in so many situations it seems like in the last few years, I can't imagine another bullpen guy in the country being in as many tough situations as Matt has been in.”
The Gamecocks received a big break early when Virginia ace Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick in the MLB draft by the Seattle Mariners, left the game due to an illness after three innings. The hard-throwing left-hander certainly didn’t look sick while striking out eight of the nine hitters he faced before he could no longer continue.
USC took immediate advantage of the pitching change by scoring a pair of runs off reliever Kyle Crockett to take a 2-1 lead. Christian Walker got the rally going with a by drilling a one-out double to right, and Jackie Bradley followed with an infield single. After Adrian Morales was hit by a pitch, Thomas dropped a double into left-center field off the glove of left-fielder John Barr to score two runs.
It appeared as if that lead would stand up, but Virginia took advantage of USC ace left-hander Michael Roth leaving the game after seven strong innings. Roth allowed just one run on four hits while pitching on four days rest.
The Cavaliers tied the game at 2-2 in the eighth on a pair of rare defensive lapses by the USC infield. Morales made a throwing error from third base on a ground ball by Chris Taylor off USC reliever John Taylor to open the inning. After a sacrifice bunt, Price entered the game and promptly got a ground ball to shortstop. But Mooney let the ball go through his legs and Taylor scored.
Price pitched out of jams in the ninth, 10th, 12th and 13th innings, as did Virginia closer Brenden Kline in the 10th and 12th innings. The Cavaliers had the bases loaded in three of those innings, but they couldn’t get the big hit against Price, who got a ground-ball double play and a line-drive double play to end two of the threats. Kline threw 107 pitches in his five scoreless innings.
“What a college baseball game,” O’Connor said. “Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong end of it. That was a baseball game of just a lot of emotions, a lot of gut decisions, (with) both teams taking chances at times. And it's unfortunate that we had to come out on the wrong end of it.”
Virginia scored in the second inning when Steven Proscia drew a leadoff walk, advanced to third on Jared King’s single to right, and scored on Kenny Swab’s double-play ball. The score ended Roth’s streak of not allowing an unearned run at 38 1/3 innings dating back to May 13 against Arkansas.
Hultzen came right at USC over his first two innings when he struck out the side both frames on 12 pitches. Mooney finally made contact when he dumped a bloop single into center field to lead off the third. But Hultzen quickly recovered to get three successive out, including two more strikeouts. Those would be the last outs Hultzen would record before he departed the game.
Roth settled in after the second inning by scattering three singles over five straight scoreless innings.
Ray Tanner postgame
Michael Roth, Matt Price postgame
Adam Matthews, Robert Beary postgame
Scott Wingo, Jackie Bradley Jr. postgame