SOUTH CAROLINA’S baseball season vanished quietly into the night Sunday at Carolina Stadium, the Gamecocks eliminated virtually without a whimper in the Columbia Regional.
And, really, who saw this coming?
Certainly not a USC team and coaching staff that believed in the preseason and through a No. 1 national ranking at midseason that the Gamecocks were destined for another appearance at the College World Series.
Certainly not a following of rabid fans who have come to believe NCAA regional tournament victories – especially at home – are a right for USC. Those same fans also believe every season should end with their beloved Gamecocks playing in Omaha, Neb.
Certainly no one saw a regional tournament loss to a Maryland program making its first appearance in an NCAA tournament since Richard Nixon was in the White House, a program that never before could dogpile on the mound following a regional tournament, as the Terps did Sunday.
So, moments after the stadium had cleared and USC players had a few minutes to cool down following the 10-1 Maryland romp, it took junior outfielder Tanner English to sum it up best.
“It (stinks),” English said. “We’re done playing for the year. I think we definitely fell short of what we wanted to. It’s not fun to lose like that, especially in that fashion in front of your own fans.”
Before going into the disappointment USC and its fans must be feeling this morning, it is only proper to recognize that Maryland was the better team this weekend. The Terps, who finished one game above .500 in the ACC during the regular season, caught fire in the postseason.
In the Saturday and Sunday wins against USC, Maryland seemed to do everything right. The Terps played nearly flawless defense with one harmless error in the two games. They pitched brilliantly, allowing USC four runs over 18 innings. They parlayed 21 hits into 14 runs.
“They beat us tonight. You’ve got to tip your cap,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “When you get beat 10-1 in your home park, you’ve got to tip your cap to your opponent. They thoroughly outplayed us tonight.”
The two stunning losses to Maryland overshadowed a few sterling performances by USC in the tournament. Left-hander Jordan Montgomery pitched brilliantly in USC’s opening-round win over Campbell, and freshman right-hander Wil Crowe was even better in throwing a complete-game shutout against Campbell in Sunday’s losers-bracket game.
Finally, there were the eight hits in 16 at-bats produced by designated hitter Max Schrock, who heroically played on a bum leg and a bad back that made it painful to watch him do anything but hit.
Unfortunately, all of that is forgotten when a promising season comes to an abrupt halt as this one did for USC. This team bolted to a 26-3 record that made it the nation’s No. 1-ranked team and the midseason favorite to capture a third national championship in a five-year span.
Then USC’s season began to crack, if not crumble. Injuries forced Holbrook to play makeshift lineups through most of the season’s second half. A rare five-game losing streak, including setbacks to Charleston Southern and The Citadel.
From the high-water mark, USC stumbled to a 17-15 finish, never seeming to regain its footing as a solid, if not spectacular, team.
The two losses to Maryland exposed USC’s biggest weakness: an inability to produce hits with runners in scoring position. In the 4-3 loss on Saturday, the Gamecocks left runners on first and second in the seventh inning, first and third in the eighth, and third base in the ninth. In Sunday’s loss, USC went hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position.
As Maryland continued to pile on runs late in Sunday’s win, USC fans gradually exited the stadium. The crowd of 6,340 for the first pitch had dwindled to a couple of thousand by the last pitch.
When USC was retired in order in the ninth inning, the smattering of Maryland fans celebrated wildly. Mostly, though, the stadium went quiet as USC’s season vanished quietly into the night.