OMAHA, Neb. -- The past two times the South Carolina baseball team played Arizona State, the Sun Devils eliminated the Gamecocks from the College World Series. USC enters today’s die-or-die meeting in search of a different result.
The 4:30 p.m. matchup at Rosenblatt Stadium pits a pair of teams that lost their first-round games; the Gamecocks (48-16) fell to Oklahoma, while the Sun Devils (52-9) got knocked off by Clemson. The team that loses will be the first in its bracket to go home.
That wasn’t the case in 1981, the last meeting between the pair, when the Sun Devils knocked out the Gamecocks in the semifinals, or in 1977, when Arizona State defeated USC 2-1 in the national championship game.
No matter the circumstances, USC coach Ray Tanner isn’t ready to return to Columbia.
He knows that isn’t going to be easy. The Sun Devils, the Pac-10 champions, entered the 64-team NCAA tournament as the top seed, and they arrived in Omaha as the favorite.
“They’re very good. They pitch, they play defense, they steal a bunch of bases. They’re the No. 1 national seed for a reason: 50-plus wins,” Tanner said. “They’ve got all the weapons to be successful, and we’ll have to do what Clemson did (Monday). We’ll have to play a very, very good game and get a quality (pitching) start.”
USC junior right-hander Sam Dyson (5-5, 4.35 ERA) will face ASU junior right-hander Merrill Kelly (10-2, 3.57) in a game in which the Gamecocks will be the home team. Tanner hopes his team can imitate its archrival, which defeated ASU 6-3 behind a strong start from Casey Harman, shutdown relief from Alex Frederick and an offensive attack that featured 14 hits.
“Certainly, Clemson had a really good day,” Tanner said. “You’ve got to do those things if you’re going to beat a great team like Arizona State.”
Tanner knows his team could have been playing in the winners’ bracket against the Tigers if it had gotten another clutch hit or two Sunday against Oklahoma. The Gamecocks left the bases loaded in both the eighth and ninth innings against the Sooners. They also didn’t execute a couple of hit-and-runs early in the game and had a runner picked off in the first inning.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, got a pair of two-out RBI singles to go with two solo homers.
“We kept thinking we had an opportunity to win it late, but we never came up with the big hit,” Tanner said. “Our pitchers did a nice job, but we didn’t push enough runs across.”
But he likes how his team has responded to tough situations all season. He noted how his club does not get too high or too low.
“It’s a good trait to have,” Tanner said.
Arizona State coach Tim Esmay believes his team has a similar ability to bounce back. He pointed out that the Sun Devils haven’t lost consecutive games all season.
“They know how to respond. They know how to play the game. They know this (Clemson) game’s over. There’s nothing they can do about it. They can’t get it back,” Esmay said. “You wake up in the morning (Tuesday), prepare to play a good South Carolina team, and that’s just the whole idea of playing the game of baseball. Tomorrow’s bounce might be going different. There might be different things that happen. And we’ll deal with it as it comes.”
Tanner will do the same. He talked about possibly moving up first baseman Christian Walker, who’s hitting .478 with 10 RBIs in his past five games, in the batting order from the five spot. He talked about getting his left-handed-hitters, such as Brady Thomas, in the lineup against Kelly. He talked about making whatever pitching moves it takes to win.
“There’s no tomorrow now. So we’ll do whatever we can to win the game,” he said. “You have to be aggressive and try to make things happen. You can’t wait to get in a mode for them to make a lot of mistakes. They haven’t made that many. What have they lost? Nine games? That’s pretty good.”
Most importantly, the Gamecocks must play relaxed.
“You can’t play with any type of anxiety or pressure,” Tanner said. “You just go out and play and try to get it done.”
If they do that, they might send the Sun Devils home this time around.
Monday: USC practice sights, sounds from Creighton University
Monday: Comments from Ray Tanner, Sam Dyson