OMAHA, Neb. – Does anybody really expect South Carolina to play a College World Series game without a few tricky seams and unexpected bumps along the way?
Because after two seasons and now 15 consecutive NCAA Tournament victories – 10 straight on college baseball’s biggest stage – the Gamecocks have this white-knuckle, back-from-the-dead thing down to a beautiful science.
Now all Carolina needs is one more win, whether it’s ugly, pretty, close, lopsided, predictable or … well, Gamecock-like, and there will be more reason for celebrating back in Columbia.
With Monday’s unlikely 11-inning 2-1 triumph over Florida in the opener of the CWS best-of-three championship series, South Carolina is in the driver’s seat for a second consecutive national crown.
Even if it did seem like the ultra-talented Gators had their claws on the Gamecocks’ throats several times Monday night.
It’s not accurate or fair to say USC wins ugly. Because the Gamecocks do so much right in order to hang around in games, it doesn’t qualify as ugly.
Unconventional? Yeah, that’s a safe description. Especially late in games, which for the most part in Carolina’s case always seem to stay close, the Gamecocks play with fire and usually wind up laughing at the singe marks left behind.
In the last two CWS games, Carolina has played 24 innings and scratched out five runs total to win both after looking absolutely inept offensively against two of the best pitchers in the country for several innings.
Deftly lying in the weeds, the Gamecocks wait for an opening, find a way to draw even and then tantalize the foe into thinking it has a game won.
Load the bases with no outs in the final few innings? Sure seems like big trouble for most teams. That’s right when South Carolina literally has a team right where it wants it.
Just like Virginia last Friday, Florida filled up the base paths with no outs and a golden opportunity to take a major step toward the program’s first national championship.
Instead, two ground balls to second baseman Scott Wingo – plus a spectacular scoop by catcher Robert Beary – netted three outs and sent the game to extra innings.
“Go out there and battle, I guess,” Wingo said when the Gamecocks were asked how they keep winning games this way.
And Wingo’s role?
“Those plays – I’m out there to make those plays,” he said.
Carolina coach Ray Tanner insisted Monday that his team really isn’t comfortable flirting with disaster all the time. But the Gamecocks sure know their way around close games – better than anybody in this CWS and anybody in the country the last two seasons.
Monday’s victory was USC’s 12th by one run this season, three in the CWS and six of those close-call victories by a 2-1 score.
As much as Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan struggled to explain the hows and whys of his team’s loss Monday, Tanner didn’t have much more luck. He just had more fun trying to since his team came out on top.
“We’re hanging in there,” he said. “We didn’t go away yet. It’s close, but we’re still here.”
Yep, Carolina is still here, still unbeaten in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Does anybody think the Gamecocks can’t finish it off?
Or maybe a better question might be, is there any doubt the Gamecocks won’t stop a few hearts back in the Palmetto State as they try to etch their name on another national championship trophy?
Tanner knows the answer, and he playfully pointed out the South Carolina fan base isn’t alone on the edge of its collective seat.
“For all those fans who are suffering, multiply it four or five times and that’s me,” he said, but with a smile.
The smile of a man who knows his team is playing exactly the way it needs to play to win the biggest prize of all.