OMAHA - South Carolina’s incredible baseball season continued Monday with a game so unlikely that it made the Disney movie “Angels in the Outfield” seem plausible.
The Gamecocks won 2-1 in 11 innings over SEC rival Florida in Game 1 of the CWS championship series at TD Ameritrade Park to put themselves one victory from a second consecutive NCAA championship.
USC first baseman Christian Walker started the winning rally by singling off Florida reliever Nick Maronde with one out. Walker, who had three stolen bases this season entering the game, swiped second on a hit-and-run play, and when catcher Mike Zunino threw the ball into center field, Walker headed to third.
That’s when the improbable happened again.
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Center fielder Bryson Smith attempted to throw out Walker, and the ball sailed wildly out of play. Just like in USC’s 3-2 win in 13 innings over Virginia last week, a second error led to the winning run.
“Christian’s not a guy that they would expect to take off in that situation,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “We sort of did it as an element of surprise.”
It was stunning that Walker was even playing after being diagnosed earlier in the day with a hamate fracture in his left wrist. He was questionable to play up until batting practice, when he hit five homers and earned a spot in the lineup. Walker is no longer surprised by what this team does.
“It’s remarkable how we stayed loose in the dugout in the 10th and 11th inning against a team like Florida,” Walker said. “We’ve done it all year, and hopefully we can continue to do so.”
USC (54-14), which won two of three in the regular-season series in Gainesville in March, found a way to beat the Gators (53-18) again. The teams play the second game of the series today at 8 p.m. Florida right-hander Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.43 ERA) will face either USC left-hander Michael Roth (13-3, 0.98) or right-hander Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.69).
USC worked out of a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the ninth inning when second baseman Scott Wingo made two amazing plays. The Gators loaded the bases off reliever John Taylor on a walk, single and intentional walk.
Wingo made a diving stop on Tyler Thompson’s ground ball and bounced up to throw out the runner at the plate as catcher Robert Beary made a short-hop scoop. With the infield playing in, Daniel Pigott hit another ground ball to Wingo, who threw to Beary to nail the runner. Beary then wheeled and barely threw out Pigott at first to complete the double play.
“We needed to elevate the ball there, and to their credit, Wingo makes a great play,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “And then Beary makes a great snag at the plate on the short hop. To ground out into the double play was probably the most pivotal part of the game. You have to credit South Carolina. They made the pitches and made the plays.”
Jake Williams came up with another stellar defensive play in the 10th inning. With two outs and runners on first and second, Zunino singled sharply to left field, but Williams gunned down Cody Dent at the plate.
“In close games like that, you just try to keep fighting, you try to make the plays you can make,” Williams said. “You’ve got to do little things in close games like that and hopefully come out in the positive. We’ve been able to do that.”
Taylor (8-1) pitched two scoreless innings to record the win, while closer Matt Price, who pitched 5 2/3 innings in the win over Virginia, pitched the 11th to pick up his 19th save.
“(Price) told me right before the game, ‘I surely got an inning in me. I feel pretty good,’ Tanner said. “I said, ‘Don’t get up until we tell you to get up.’ I didn’t want him down there throwing. He said, ‘Really, I’m good to go.’ And so you have to trust your players.”
The Gamecocks won their 15th consecutive game in NCAA tournament play, which tied a record set by Texas in the 1983-84 seasons. They also tied a record held by Southern Cal and LSU of 10 straight CWS victories.
“Bottom line, South Carolina is the champ for a reason,” O’Sullivan said. “They made plays when they needed to. This thing is a long way from over. This is a series. We’re disappointed tonight. But when we come out (Tuesday), we’ll be ready to go.”
Florida took a 1-0 lead in the third inning without the benefit of a hit. USC starter Forrest Koumas walked Thompson to lead things off. Thompson moved to second on a groundout and third on a wild pitch before Dent’s sacrifice fly scored him.
Florida starter Hudson Randall worked effortlessly through the first seven innings. He allowed two hits, walked one and struck out six.
The Gamecocks broke through in the eighth with a run when Randall issued a leadoff walk. Peter Mooney moved to second on a sacrifice and to third on a fly ball to center. Wingo worked the count to 2-2 before singling up the middle to tie the game at 1.
“That last at-bat, I think I swung through two sliders, and I just said to myself, ‘Stay late; if I get beat inside, I get beat inside,’ ” Wingo said. “And he threw another curveball, and I was able to hit it up the middle.”
With the exception of the one run in the third, Koumas matched zeroes with Randall. The freshman right-hander allowed three hits and one walk in 5 2/3 innings, his longest outing since April 9.
“Forrest did a nice job for us being a true freshman on this stage,” Tanner said. “He kept us alive.”
Lefty reliever Tyler Webb replaced Koumas and gave up an infield single before retiring Zunino, the SEC Player of the Year, on a fly ball to center with two men on to end the sixth-inning threat. Webb followed with a scoreless innings in the seventh and the eighth.
Ray Tanner postgame
Christian Walker postgame
Matt Price, Michael Roth postgame
Scott Wingo postgame
Forrest Koumas, Jerry Meyers postgame