South Carolina earned its 10th trip to the College World Series Sunday night with a Super Regional victory over UConn. Now I’m going to tell you 10 things I know about USC baseball.
1. I know Ray Tanner has done the best coaching job of his career. Sure, he has taken 20 of his 24 N.C. State and USC teams to the NCAA tournament. He also has taken five of his USC teams to the College World Series, with last season’s team bringing home the national championship. But no matter what happens in Omaha this season, Tanner has cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s elite coaches with this magnificent job. He had to find a new pitching rotation this season, and he had to patch together a lineup as one injury after another popped up. Not only did he do both – including turning one of his better pitchers into a hard-hitting left-fielder -- but he continued to push all the right buttons on a nightly basis. Not once did he gripe about his tough luck. That’s not his style. He’s a true force of positive energy, and that’s a big reason why his team rallied to play consistently outstanding baseball.
2. I know Michael Roth’s 1.02 ERA is simply absurd. It’s one thing for a reliever to have an ERA that low. But for a starter with 123 innings, it’s unbelievable. Earl Bass, who had a 1.10 ERA over 106 innings in 1974, holds the record for starters in USC history. If Roth keeps doing in the CWS what he has done all season, he may break that mark. In his 17 starts, he has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of them. And he has not allowed an earned run in eight of them, including the last four covering 30 innings. A season like this will probably never be duplicated in USC history.
3. I know Christian Walker is a consummate hitter. The sophomore first baseman is so focused and so disciplined at the plate that he’s never going to fall into a prolonged slump. He never gives away an at-bat, and even in the rare games when he goes hitless, he still manages to hit balls hard. He leads the Gamecocks with a .359 batting average, 10 homers, 60 RBIs, 60 runs, 89 hits, 18 doubles and 135 total bases. He’s the epitome of a No. 3 hitter. His coolness at the plate matches his consistency. He just comes up big in big situations, as game-winning homers in clinching victories in consecutive Super Regionals show.
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4. I know the Gamecocks love Carolina Stadium. With an 8-2 win over UConn Sunday in the final Super Regional game before another rowdy sellout crowd, they closed out the 2011 home season with a 36-4 record. That’s a winning percentage of .900, another number that makes you want to shake your head in amazement. With a home schedule that included Clemson, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Stetson and UConn, that’s very impressive. However, that record still wasn’t the best one in the Tanner era. His 2000 team had a 37-4 record at Sarge Frye Field.
5. I know 50 is nifty. For just the sixth time in the program’s history, USC has won at least 50 games, a true milestone in college baseball. Just look at the South Carolina teams that have accomplished the feat. The 1975 team, which finished 51-6-1 under Bobby Richardson, reached the national championship game. The others came in the Tanner era, including the 2000 team, which went 56-10 and lost in the Super Regionals. The 2002 team, which went 57-18, also reached the national championship game, while the 2004 team, which went 53-17, made it to the CWS. The 2010 team, which finished 54-16, won the national title, of course. And this year’s team, which now stands 50-14, is headed back to Omaha.
6. I know Taylor-Price is an unbeatable combo. Relievers John Taylor and Matt Price have been overwhelmingly good this season, a point proven once more in the 8-2 win Sunday, when Taylor pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to record the win and Price finished up with two more scoreless frames to get the save. Their combined numbers are something else as well -- an 11-4 record with 18 saves and a 1.66 ERA. They have allowed just 76 hits and struck out 129 in 113 2/3 innings. Once the game gets to the sixth or seventh inning with the Gamecocks in the lead, it gets very difficult for their opponents to come back.
7. I know Scott Wingo may go down as the most popular Gamecock in the program’s history.
8. I know this is going to be a great College World Series. The committee did a very good job of seeding the teams. On one side of the bracket, all the national seeds made it through: No. 2 Florida, No. 3 UNC, No. 6 Vanderbilt and No. 7 Texas. Now that’s loaded. On the other side with No. 4 USC are No. 1 Virginia and unseeded Cal, the Cinderella team of the tournament that went from having its program on the chopping block to reaching the pinnacle event of the sport. The final team is yet to be determined. This looks like a fantastic way to open the $131 million TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha. As much as I’m going to miss Rosenblatt Stadium’s charm and history, I can’t wait to see the new ballpark.
9. I know the USC players believe they can win it again. If you’ve watched them compete all season like I have, you’d know the Gamecocks have full confidence in themselves to keep this run going. They just think they’re going to win every time they step on the field. Repeating, of course, is hard. Oregon State last did it in 2006-07, but USC has the same ingredients that carried it to last season’s championship: Great pitching, great defense and the ability to score just enough runs to win. Don’t downplay their chances. With all the injuries, I kept waiting for them to slip and fall. They never did.
10. I know there’s nothing like following a winner. The players and coaches are happy, the fans are excited, and the media never lacks for good stories. The Gamecocks also play a brand of baseball that makes them fun to watch. I’ve enjoyed that the new bats have placed a higher premium on pitching and defense. The games move along, and there are fewer blowouts. Baseball is the best sport around, and watching USC join the best college baseball teams in the country as they compete over the next two weeks is going to be a blast.