The Gamecocks and Florida opened the 2011 College World Series championship series with a taut dogfight Monday, with pitching and dominating and runs at a premium.
Scoring opportunities finally surfaced for both teams in the late innings, but even those were tough to cash in on until the Gators' defense finally blinked twice in the 11th inning.
Carolina first baseman Christian Walker capped his unlikely night with a one-out single and a stolen base and then raced around with the winning run in the top of the 11th to propel the Gamecocks to a gritty 2-1 triumph.
Monday's outcome pushes South Carolina within a victory of a second consecutive national crown. The best-of-three series continues at 7 p.m. Tuesday at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Gamecocks (54-14) seized the upper hand in typical fashion, winning their third one-run game of the CWS – the second directly thanks to an opponent's error – and 12th this season. South Carolina has now won six games by a 2-1 count.
"We're in these a lot and have been the last few years," said Gamecocks' coach Ray Tanner, who is looking to become only the third active coach to lead a school to back-to-back crowns. "We're not necessarily comfortable in (them) but we know there's always going to be a crack where we can win it."
And there always seems to be an unexpected hero for South Carolina.
Monday it was Walker, who played with a broken hamate bone in his right hand and his status for the game was highly doubtful. He wasn't in the original lineup Tanner turned in, but after getting through a last-minute batting practice session without incident, the sophomore told his coach he was ready.
"I'm shocked that he was able to play," Tanner said.
In pain or not, Walker looked ready when he rammed a one-out base hit through the middle against Florida reliever Nick Maronde to give USC life in the 11th inning.
With Adam Matthews at the plate, Walker broke for second base and arrived safely when Florida catcher Mike Zunino's throw sailed over everybody's head and into center field.
The ball rolling in the outfield, Walker popped up out of his slide and dashed toward third base as center fielder Bryson Smith scooped the ball up and fired a throw that short-hopped third baseman Cody Dent and sailed into the stands, allowing Walker to trot home.
But before the game ever boiled down to that, the Gamecocks had the chance to scratch out the game-winning run because their fabulous defense snuffed out Florida's bid for the game-winning run in both the ninth and 10th innings.
The Gators (53-18) were in prime position to snare the victory in the bottom of the ninth inning before South Carolina turned in a spectacularly hard-to-fathom Houdini act to force extra innings for the second game in a row.
Gamecocks' reliever John Taylor came on for the ninth inning and immediately worked his way into trouble when he walked Zunino after a nine-pitch war of wills.
Florida DH Brian Johnson fell behind 1-2 before blistering a single past a diving Walker at first base to send Zunino scampering around to third base.
Tanner issued an intentional walk to Josh Adams to load the bases and set up a force play at the plate. With the infield drawn in, Tyler Thompson poked a ball toward the middle that Gamecocks' second baseman Scott Wingo snared and threw to the plate, but wide right.
Catcher Robert Beary stretched for the throw, hauled it in and made the tag right before Zunino slid home for the first out.
Florida's Daniel Pigott took a strike and then tapped a ball right at Wingo, who fielded cleanly, threw a perfect strike to Beary and he whipped a throw to first base for an inning-ending 4-2-3 double play to snuff out the Gator threat.
"That was probably the most pivotal part of the game," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We probably needed to do something that inning. Unfortunately we didn't. You have to credit South Carolina. They made the pitches and made the plays."
The Gamecocks weren't done making plays.
Dent began the Florida 10th by smoking a single to the right side and he moved up on Nolan Fontana's bunt.
Taylor got Smith to fly out to left field for the second out and then walked Preston Tucker intentionally.
Zunino took a jab at playing hero when he yanked a single into left field, but Jake Williams charged the ball, came up throwing and rifled a strike to the plate, where Beary tagged Dent out in plenty of time.
"I had one of those weird intuitions that the ball was going to get hit to me honestly, and I was just ready to make accurate throw and try to get it in the air and make it have a close chance for a play," Williams said of his first assist this season. "And sure enough, the ball was hit to me and I got a good throw on it."
Added Tanner with a smile, "That's the best throw he's made since I've known him. He charged that ball hard and it was just a matter of if he could get that ball home and Beary made a nice play on the other end, too."
After struggling against Gators' starting pitcher Hudson Randall for seven innings, South Carolina forged a 1-1 deadlock in the eighth inning and the pesky Wingo was at the eye of the storm.
Peter Mooney started the frame by drawing the first walk of the night off Randall, who was fabulous in his 7-2/3-inning stint. Beary bunted Mooney to second and he dashed to third on Evan Marzilli's fly out to center field.
Wingo, who hadn't gotten many good swings in his first three at-bats against Randall — striking out twice — worked the count to 2-2 and then made solid contact with a breaking pitch and rolled a sharp grounder that caromed off the pitcher's outstretched glove and into center field for a clutch two-out RBI single.
"It was my decision to throw a curve ball," Randall said. "I thought I was going to get him with it. Turns out he saw too many of them and got a good piece of the bat on the ball."
To generate the first run of the night in the third inning, Florida didn't need a hit.
Thompson drew a leadoff walk — USC starter Forrest Koumas' only free pass of the night in 5-2/3 innings. Pigott surprisingly didn't bunt, but his comebacker trickled to the right side of the mound just enough for Koumas to have to lunge for the ball and when he got back into position to throw, his best option was a flip to first base for the sure out.
That loomed large when Koumas' first pitch to Dent squirted away from Beary far enough to allow Thompson to dash to third base with one out. Dent, a .211 hitter with only six RBI when the game began, shanked an opposite-field fly ball to medium-depth left field near the foul line that Williams hauled in.
Thompson tagged up and sprinted in well ahead of the throw for the early 1-0 cushion.
That seemed like it might be enough the way Randall was dealing.
The Gamecocks' got man into scoring position in the first inning when Walker lined a two-out double into the right-field corner.
After that, South Carolina scuffled to do anything against the Gators' ace and didn't advance a runner past first until Mooney in the eighth inning.
Koumas was just as effective, though, in his first CWS appearance. He limited Florida to three singles in his outing, never more than one in an inning.
So now the Gamecocks are on the doorstep of becoming just the fifth program to repeat as national champs.
Junior left-hander Michael Roth should be ready to take the mound for Carolina, although Tanner said the decision wouldn't be made until Tuesday morning after he and the pitcher had talked.
Florida will counter with freshman Karsten Whitson, and O'Sullivan said Johnson is available to pitch for the first time since he was knocked out on a Zunino throw to second base in the SEC Tournament semifinal round.
Although the Gators seemed a bit shell shocked in the aftermath of their first loss of the CWS, there was also a resolve to play well Tuesday.
"You've just got to battle back (Tuesday)," Johnson said. "Game two and the umpire says ‘play,' it's a new game. We've got to go out there and battle, do whatever we can to scratch out hits and runs, execute where we need to."
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