OMAHA, Neb. - SOUTH CAROLINA’S tried-and-true formula proved successful once again Friday night at the College World Series.
This USC team won its way into the championship series against Arizona with its calling cards from the past two seasons: pitching and defense. If it is to capture a third consecutive national championship, USC is certain to do it with its gloves and its arms.
In USC’s 3-2 victory against Arkansas, USC played errorless ball and got a sliding catch from right fielder Adam Matthews with runners on second and third base in the third inning that prevented a big inning for the Razorbacks.
More important, USC received outstanding pitching. First, it was left-hander Tyler Webb who came out of the bullpen to throw four scoreless innings, the same Tyler Webb who blanked Arkansas over 51/3 innings four days earlier.
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Then USC turned it over to closer Matt Price, who sealed the win with three shutout innings. He also picked up the win, his record fifth in the College World Series.
Over the past two seasons, if it was not Matthews, it was Evan Marzilli making spectacular plays in the field or any number of infielders and outfielders. If it was not Webb or Price providing gem after gem on the mound, it was Michael Roth, or any number of others who seemed to save their best for the postseason.
With the NCAA-mandated changes in bats two seasons ago, USC might have changed its style of play more dramatically than any team in college baseball. It went from being a home-run bashing machine to one that wins with pitching and defense.
“It’s because that’s kind of what’s happening in college baseball,” Tanner said of the decline in home run totals and run production in the college game. The average number of home runs per game and runs scored per game are at its lowest since the advent of aluminum bats for the 1974 season.
At the beginning of this season, pitching was not as much of a concern to Tanner as defense. Price was moved to the starting rotation to join stalwarts Roth and Colby Holmes. But it never came together for Price as a starter, and he eventually returned to the bullpen.
Then injuries took their toll on Holmes as well as Forrest Koumas, putting USC in a position to mix, match and patch its starting weekend rotation through the regular season and into the postseason.
“Things were a little bit different, other than Roth,” Tanner said. “You knew that Michael was going to pitch on the weekend. Other than that, it did change quite a bit here and there.”
Part of the pitching staff’s problem early was a shaky infield defense with newcomers at every position except first base, where Christian Walker remained an anchor. LB Dantzler proved to be steady at third base, Joey Pankake took a while to find his way at shortstop and Chase Vergason first had to win the job before becoming a steady force at second base.
“In itself, they were new,” Tanner said. “They weren’t comfortable yet. It’s going to take some time. You can go through fall practice and preseason practice, but it’s not the same when the other uniforms start to show up.
“There was a little bit of anxiety, I guess. We didn’t play quite as well. We weren’t as solid. We weren’t as aggressive on defense.”
USC made 30 errors in its first 28 games, most of them in the infield. Over the past 38 games, the Gamecocks have made 22 errors. USC’s only error in five College World Series games was on a throw by catcher Dante Rosenberg.
In Omaha, the most noticeable improvement has been by Pankake. Even late in the season, when Pankake had steadied himself and was making most of the routine plays at shortstop, he displayed little range. Not in Omaha.
In Thursday’s 2-0 victory against Arkansas, Pankake twice ranged far to his left, fielding the ball behind second base before throwing on the run for an out at first. On another play, he showed natural instincts to get to a ground ball in the hole, backhanded the catch and fired to first for the out.
“Down the stretch, we started to get a little bit more comfortable and it’s helped us,” Tanner said. “But our defense has been really solid for us the last couple of months.”
That proved to be true again on Friday in the win over Arkansas. USC made all the routine plays on defense, and its pitchers threw strikes while dealing with an umpire with a tiny strike zone.
Once again, the game’s outcome came down to pitching and defense, and USC had plenty of both. It is a formula that has put the Gamecocks in position to capture a third consecutive national championship.