OMAHA, Neb. – Elite by its pure definition means there isn’t a whole lot of company in what you’ve accomplished.
Elite in college baseball vernacular constitutes a very small club that welcomed a new member Tuesday night.
Welcome in, South Carolina.
The Gamecocks polished off Florida in the 2011 College World Series championship round, jumping ahead early, leaning on another efficient offensive performance and junior pitcher Michael Roth to protect that lead on the way to a 5-2 triumph.
South Carolina (55-14) finished off this year’s CWS at brand-new TD Ameritrade Park the same way it ended a history-laden era at Rosenblatt Stadium in 2010 – with grind-it-out and not-always-beautiful victories against teams that looked like the favorites on paper.
Tuesday’s triumph elevates the Gamecocks into lofty company, as they are only the sixth program to claim consecutive national crowns in baseball, joining Texas (1949-50), Southern Cal (1970-74), Stanford (1987-88), LSU (1996-97) and Oregon State (2006-07) in that exclusive neighborhood.
Carolina also claimed a little slice of history for itself, winning its 11th consecutive CWS game and 16th NCAA Tournament game in a row over two years – both records.
“It's difficult to put into words what we've experienced in the last few days and having been at Rosenblatt last year and having the good fortune of closing that out, and getting an opportunity to come to TD Ameritrade this year was very special,” USC coach Ray Tanner said.
“We've really played some great baseball while we were here, and it's hard for me to understand it all right now. I'll have to let it sink in a little bit.
There’s plenty for Tanner and his latest crew of champions to absorb.
Roth anchored Tuesday’s championship-clinching victory with his third strong performance of the CWS on the mound. The big left-hander logged 7-2/3 innings, allowing six hits and a pair of runs while squelching Florida uprisings in the first, fifth and sixth frames to keep the Gators frustrated.
The Gamecocks’ offense, meanwhile, generated 10 hits, executed well with three sacrifice bunts and a sacrifice fly and benefited from three hit batters and three walks to overcome 11 stranded runners.
“They were a little bit better than us in all phases,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “They pitched a little bit better. They hit a little bit better. They played a little bit better defense and they earned it.”
After habitually playing from behind most of the CWS, South Carolina broke the ice with a three-run third inning as Gators’ starting pitcher Karsten Whitson’s control problems and a two-out Florida error supplied the framework.
Carolina shortstop Peter Mooney started the at-bat by pumping an opposite-field double into the left-field corner, the first of his two key offensive contributions and the Gamecocks’ first hit of the night off Whitson. Catcher Robert Beary bunted him to third base for nine-hole hitter Evan Marzilli.
After pitching ahead for the most part until then, Whitson suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone and walked Marzilli on four pitches to put runners on the corners with one out.
Gator-killer Scott Wingo – named the CWS Most Outstanding Player – went toe-to-toe with Whitson for five pitches before cranking a fly ball to right field deep enough to score Mooney easily for the game’s first run.
With a chance to stop the bleeding there, Whitson walked Jackie Bradley on a full-count pitch and Christian Walker – somehow playing again with a broken hamate bone – zapped a sharp grounder toward shortstop Nolan Fontana, who tried to short-hop the ball and whiffed for an error to score Marzilli for a 2-0 lead.
The lead expanded to 3-0 when Brady Thomas chopped a ball over the mound that Florida second baseman Josh Adams snatched and threw to first base, but a split-second late, allowing Bradley to get home safely.
That outburst marked just the third time in 50 offensive innings that Carolina produced more than two runs. Instead of huge explosions, the Gamecocks – as they had all season – relied on chipping away.
Tanner said repeatedly during the two weeks in Omaha that his team wasn’t made up of great players. The personable Wingo playfully took issue with that notion Tuesday.
“I’d say we’re pretty awesome,” said Wingo, who batted .333 (6-for-18) with three RBIs in the CWS. USC led all teams in Omaha with a .263 team batting average and 22 runs. “Our talent might not be a bunch of first-rounders, but I think I’d rather play with these guys than any other team.
Added Roth, “We’re not the most talented team, and we don’t have the best players position for position, but we go out and stick together as a team. We battle. I can’t describe it. We’re a bunch of average Joes and love each other and come out and battle.”
The Gators got a run back quickly in the top of the fourth inning when Mike Zunino uncorked his 19th home run of the season into the left-field bleachers on a 1-and-2 pitch from Roth.
But Florida squandered chances to draw closer or tie the game in the fifth and sixth innings, and that proved costly.
Roth wobbled to begin both innings, hitting Brian Johnson to start the fifth and Fontana to begin the sixth. The next hitter followed with a single in each frame – Vickash Ramjit and then Zunino – to give the Gators two on with no outs each time.
Roth sidestepped trouble in the fifth when Cody Dent bunted foul with two strikes for a strikeout and Bryson Smith chopped into a 4-6-3 double play.
Then in the sixth, Florida slugger Preston Tucker fanned for the first out, Adams rolled out to third base to move both runners into scoring position and Daniel Pigott tapped out to Wingo at second base.
“We had first and second two innings in a row, and we just didn't do enough,” O’Sullivan said. “That's the bottom line. We didn't get a bunt down to move them over. Then we had Preston up, first and second, and we strike out.”
While the Gators’ frustration mounted, Mooney added some welcome insurance when he blasted an inside pitch from reliever Tommy Toledo into the right-field bullpen to balance out Zunino’s bomb and push South Carolina’s lead back to 4-1.
Florida finally ended its drought of clutch hits in the eighth inning when Zunino doubled with one out, got to third on a groundout and crossed the plate when Adams yanked a single to right field – the Gators’ only hit all night with runners in scoring position in nine at-bats.
Even then, South Carolina didn’t sit pat.
Beary, a defensive star in Monday’s 2-1 11-inning triumph, started the bottom of the eighth with a single. Marzilli moved him up with a bunt and Steven Rodriguez’s wild pitch allowed him to get to third base.
With the Florida infield pulled in, Wingo put the finishing touches on his spectacular CWS when he bounded an RBI hit through the right side for a 5-2 cushion.
“Scott Wingo is the epitome of what our program is all about, and I know I'm going to miss him,” Tanner said. “I told him a few minutes ago he's really going to miss me come next fall. He might not miss some of the things, but he's been great for four years.”
With Wingo’s hit giving Carolina plenty of breathing room, the ninth inning was left up to Gamecocks’ closer Matt Price, who entered in the eighth inning to strike out pinch-hitter Tyler Thompson – the potential tying run – looking. Price got the Gators in order in the ninth inning for his 20th save to go with a pair of victories in relief.
When the final out was in the books, a fly ball that settled softly into Bradley’s glove, the celebration began and the customary dog pile formed in the center of the diamond.
Just like it did a year earlier at a venerable old stadium marking her final appearance and the end of an era.
South Carolina was there at Rosenblatt for that final act, and the Gamecocks helped college baseball pass the torch to a new era in fine style Tuesday night.
“These guys up here, our players, they've made it happen between the lines,” Tanner said, motioning to the players who accompanied him to the postgame press conference. “ They made plays. They made pitches. They got big hits. They always felt they had a chance to win. They believed. I thought they did a tremendous job of keeping baseball in perspective. We never thought that we were an awesome team; we just thought we were good enough to win at times.”
Good enough? How about better than anybody else for a second year in a row.
Get inside coverage of your favorite team. Click here now to get started.