OMAHA, Neb. – Florida spent most of this season carving a spot as one of the best teams in the country, with a schedule as tough as anybody, anchored by the normal gauntlet in the tough-as-nails SEC.
Now the top-ranked and ultra-talented Gators have a tough road ahead to figure out if they were worthy of all those accolades, including the No. 1 overall seed when the NCAA Tournament began.
And it was a familiar old nemesis that shoved Florida into a thorny predicament at the College World Series.
Two-time champion South Carolina rolled past the Gators 7-3 Saturday in the last game of the opening round, sparked by a rare five-run explosion and typical grind-it-out performance by a senior pitcher who has built his reputation at this time of the season.
The Gamecocks (46-17) move on to face another SEC foe in the second round: An 8 p.m. showdown vs. Arkansas on Monday. Florida (47-19) will take on Kent State in an elimination game at 4 p.m. Monday.
Michael Roth notched his eighth win this season and won a game in a third consecutive CWS, becoming only the fourth pitcher to do so. He logged 6.1 innings, dodging and weaving several trouble spots before giving way to Tyler Webb and then Matt Price, who logged two scoreless frames for his 12th save of the year and SEC-record 41st of his career.
Offensively, South Carolina rattled the Gators for 12 hits, five in a five-run fifth inning when the Gamecocks vaulted ahead after trailing 2-0. Erik Payne delivered the biggest blow with a bases-loaded triple.
And USC squeezed out two more runs in the ninth inning with two Florida wild pitches and two errors paving the way.
“I thought South Carolina beat us in every phase of the game (Saturday),” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “They outpitched us, they obviously out-hit us and they played better defense.”
What began with promise for the Gators abruptly unraveled when the Gamecocks came to bat in the fifth inning.
Florida got to Roth for an early 2-0 lead. Justin Shafer and Vickash Ramjit pumped back-to-back singles, but were still on base after Josh Tobias couldn’t get a bunt down and Nolan Fontana chopped out to shortstop, moving both runners up a base.
|Nolan Fontana and Justin Shafer celebrate after both scored on Preston Tucker's double to give Florida a 2-0 lead.|
Preston Tucker bailed his team out when he jumped on the first pitch he saw and rifled a double down the left-field line to score a pair and give him 258 career RBIs, which leads active Division I players.
Armed with a 2-0 lead, Johnson went out for the fourth inning looking to keep South Carolina at bay. He managed to do that, surviving the Gamecocks’ fourth scoring threat in as many innings. They got at least two runners on base in three of the first four frames and had three men in scoring position with less than two outs in those innings.
But USC was 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, four outs recorded on strikeouts, wiping out chances to manufacture runs for an offense built on doing so.
Things changed dramatically in the fifth.
Evan Marzilli produced Carolina’s third consecutive leadoff hit when he thumped a double to right-center field. Christian Walker zapped a base hit to left field, but too sharply to score Marzilli. Johnson walked Adam Matthews and the bases were loaded with no outs.
|Erik Payne: 3-run 3B erases deficit and sends Gamecocks on their way to a 7-3 win|
That sent Payne up for only his 100th plate appearance of the season, and after working the count to 2-and-2, the sophomore DH sent a rocket to center field over Daniel Pigott’s head to clear the bases and erase Florida’s 2-0 lead.
“Every player wants to be up there with the bases loaded,” Payne said. “You’ve got to try to stay calm and focused on what you want to do.”
LB Dantzler followed with a double to score Payne and after a bunt, Chase Vergason pushed home the fifth run of the inning with a single.
The five-run inning was Carolina’s biggest since it plated six in the eighth inning of a 10-7 win at Arkansas on May 6.
“We were able to have a big inning,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. “We don’t get five, six, seven too many times and go double-digit hits, but (Saturday) we were able to do that.”
The South Carolina offense didn’t do much else after that, but didn’t have to.
Roth settled in after Tucker’s two-run hit and retired 10 of 13 batters between the third and sixth frames. The only other damage Florida inflicted was on Mike Zunino’s sacrifice fly in the fifth.
Tyler Webb choked off a Gators rally in the seventh when he got Tucker to pop out to shallow left field with runners at second and third base and survived the uprising moments later when Johnson’s wicked liner went straight to Matthews in right field.
That was Florida’s last gasp. Price surrendered a pair of ninth-inning singles, but extinguished the rally wen Zunino tapped out in front of the plate to end the game and extend the Gamecocks’ record NCAA and CWS win streaks to 22 and 12 games.
Five USC hitters had two hits as the offense produced 10 hits or more for the third time in six NCAA games.
None of those hits were bigger than Payne’s.
“I was trying to keep my hand still and try to stay balanced and work the whole field,” Payne said. “I got a fastball that I could drive and I split a gap and was fortunate enough that it fell.”