Regular season baseball and playoff baseball are different. If the Atlanta Braves, the region’s favorite Major League team, have taught us anything, it’s that.
South Carolina fans were reminded of that Sunday, when Oklahoma State ended the Gamecocks’ season with a 3-1 victory at Founders Park.
USC finished the season 46-18 and won one of college baseball’s toughest divisions in the SEC East, but it didn’t win a game in its own Super Regional. It barely threatened to win either of the two games, in fact.
The Gamecocks have a better 27-man roster than Oklahoma State. That didn’t matter this weekend. All that mattered was the Cowboys had the two best players on the field – Saturday starter Thomas Hatch and Sunday starter Tyler Buffett. Their combined line: 14 innings, one earned run, seven strikeouts and three walks.
“Baseball can be awfully cruel,” South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. “It’s a cruel sport. We had three great at-bats there to end the game. DC (Arendas) fought his way on base. (Marcus) Mooney ended his career with one of the best at-bats against a quality pitcher he’s had in his career, and then Gene (Cone) squares one up, but sometimes you hit it at them. It’s just baseball.
“We won 46 games; we won 20 in the league; we had a heck of a year. Yeah, it stinks we weren’t able to win one more series here at home. We ran into some outstanding pitchers and a great defensive team who made it awfully difficult to score.”
Every baseball game features hundreds of moving parts. Spread out all those variables over a long regular season and the best teams almost always have the best record in the end. Compress them all into a 26-hour period, and fate and timing become a much bigger part of the equation.
For instance: Jonah Bride starts off the seventh inning with a hard hit ball up the middle, Buffet swings his glove hand over fast enough to deflect the ball, but not stop it. The deflection puts it right into the path of Cowboys shortstop Donnie Walton, who throws to first for the out. If Buffett doesn’t graze the ball, or if it deflects in any of the other hundred directions it could have gone, then Bride reaches and the back-to-back singles that followed by Madison Stokes and Arendas have a different complexion.
But that’s not what happened. What happened was Mooney hit into a double play that ended the inning.
South Carolina had some self-inflicted wounds, to be sure. In the fourth, fifth and seventh innings, the Gamecocks had two runners on with one out and couldn’t plate a run. Catcher John Jones’ re-insertion into the lineup didn’t provide the spark Holbrook wanted as Jones went 0-for-4. Mooney and Jones each had throwing errors that contributed to the Cowboys’ three-run fifth inning.
The Gamecocks didn’t do themselves any favors, but there’s not much to do when you can only manage one run a game.
“They made the pitches they had to make when they needed to make them,” Holbrook said. “The difference in the series is their pitchers were better than our hitters.”
The Cowboys got hot at the right time. Oklahoma State heads to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series having won five games in a row and nine of its past 11. It got hot because its pitchers got hot.
That’s why the Cowboys were celebrating on the Gamecocks infield Sunday afternoon, and why South Carolina’s season is over.