OMAHA, Neb. – Like every sport, baseball has some basic principles every team has to figure out to be successful – especially with a championship within reach.
Perhaps the most important for baseball, especially pitchers: Throw strikes.
Arkansas’ spectacular pitching staff had been as good at that simple task as anybody in the country this season, and that was a big reason why the Razorbacks got to Friday night’s showdown with South Carolina for a shot at taking on Arizona in the College World Series championship series.
The Gamecocks (49-18) will square off with Arizona (46-17) in the national championship series starting at 7 p.m. Sunday.
|Three-peat? The Gamecocks have that chance after clipping Arkansas 3-2 Friday night|
Against a team that knows what it takes to win here, though, the Razorbacks (46-22) just couldn’t find the strike zone when they had to the most.
South Carolina’s bid for a rare CWS three-peat is alive after the Gamecocks rallied past Arkansas 3-2 Friday in a night when pitching – and perhaps the home-plate umpire – and a handful of missed scoring chances dominated.
The final two USC runs scored on two-out, full-count, bases-loaded walks, two of the nine free passes the Razorbacks handed out, which matched a season-worst.
Each of the three Arkansas pitchers who faced more than one batter had at least one walk and were victimized by a strike zone by Perry Costello that wasn’t exactly pitcher-friendly and seemed to fluctuate at times.
Hogs coach Dave Van Horn delicately sidestepped around that aspect of the game, first praising his pitchers and then declining to answer a direct question about the strike zone.
“Hats off to my pitchers,” Van Horn said. “I thought they filled up the zone all night long.”
Asked to talk about the zone, Van Horn flashed a wan smile and said “I would love to, but I can’t.”
South Carolina’s second forced-in run stung the most and wound up being the run that propelled the plucky Gamecocks into the championship series for a third consecutive year with a chance to become the first team to win three national crowns in a row since Southern Cal rattled off five in a row from 1970-74.
Arkansas reliever Colby Suggs got the first out of the seventh inning on the first pitch, but then walked Joey Pankake and Evan Marzilli. Christian Walker popped out harmlessly to second base for the second out and Van Horn opted to go to Barrett Astin to face cleanup hitter LB Dantzler.
Astin was nearly untouchable against the Gamecocks in a three-inning save on Monday when he never went to a three-ball count. Dantzler drilled a ball back through the middle that Astin gloved and deflected to second baseman Bo Bigham for an infield hit that loaded the bases.
|Tanner English slide across home plate with South Carolina's first run|
That brought up Adam Matthews, who was miserable in his first three at-bats with a double play, a fly out and a strikeout – two of those at-bats with the bases loaded.
Matthews got ahead 3-and-1, took a strike for a full count and then watched a borderline slider glide by – Costello calling it ball four – to score Pankake.
“You have to continue to go out there and try to put some quality at-bats together,” Matthews said. “He threw me some good pitches that I watched, and he threw me a good slider that I held off of, and fortunately I walked.”
That walk typified a Gamecocks offense in a season when they have played a school-record 28 one-run games, winning 15.
“We just kept grinding it out,” Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “We caught a break there with the walk and we’re able to hang on and win.”
Like they did in the first of three meetings with the Gamecocks in Omaha, the Razorbacks eased in front by generating a run each in the first and third innings.
Tim Carver got Arkansas started on the right foot when he chopped a leadoff infield single to the left side on the game’s first pitch and moved to second on Jacob Mahan’s bunt. Matt Reynolds battled USC starter Colby Holmes to a full count, fouled off a pitch and then laced a base hit to left field to score Carver.
Reynolds swiped second with one out to give the Hogs another scoring chance, but Holmes got the next two outs, establishing a familiar trend for the Arkansas offense.
When the Hogs managed to get runners into scoring position – none in the last three innings – they were a combined 2-for-9, 0-for-5 with one or no outs.
“We had runners on and could have driven in a run early,” Van Horn said. “If you can just get one more hit or somebody makes an error, all of a sudden you jump up and have a four-run lead.”
That never materialized and squandering chances came back to haunt the Razorbacks.
Another Arkansas leadoff hitter reached in the third inning the hard way when Holmes drilled Jake Wise in the back. Van Horn eschewed the bunt with Carver up and he delivered, zapping a double to right field to put runners at second and third with no outs.
Tanner yanked Holmes and brought in left-hander Tyler Webb, who got the first out on a hot shot off Mahan’s bat to third base. But Reynolds lofted a twisting fly ball to right field that Matthews tracked down near the foul line and snared on a nice play.
It was deep enough to score Wise easily, though, and give the Razorbacks a 2-0 cushion.
|DJ Baxendale and Jake Wise talk during the 5th inning when the Hogs pitcher walked 3 hitters to allow South Carolina to tied the score 2-2. Baxendale finished with a career-worst 5 walks.|
Webb was solid for four innings and left Arkansas frustrated in the fourth inning when he worked around a leadoff walk to Bigham and Matt Vinson’s one-out base hit that put runners on the corners. Wise fanned and Carver skied out to right field to end the threat, and the Gamecocks’ offense seized the moment soon after that.
Carolina pulled even in the fifth inning when Arkansas starter DJ Baxendale couldn’t master a strike zone that seemed to suddenly shrink.
Baxendale had flirted with trouble in the first inning, loading the bases with a pair of walks sandwiched around Walker’s base hit. But the Hogs’ defense rescued him when Bigham turned Matthews’ slow chopped into a 4-6-3 inning-ending double play.
After retiring nine of the next 10 batters after the first inning, Baxendale finally ran into problems in the fifth when Tanner English looped a single to center field to start the frame – the Gamecocks’ first leadoff batter to reach. Baxendale got the first out but walked nine-hole hitter Chase Vergason to put two on for the top of the USC batting order.
Pankake jolted the first pitch he saw into center field and the speedy English roared home to cut the Arkansas lead in half 2-1. That seemed to unhinge Baxendale, who walked Marzilli to load the bases and then Walker to force in the tying run.
Van Horn pulled Baxendale and got an out each from Trent Daniel and Suggs to leave the score deadlocked until the seventh.
Another key development in the top of that inning was Tanner turning the game over to Matt Price.
|Matt Price notched his CWS-record fifth victory with 3 scoreless frames with 5 strikeouts|
With the Arkansas offense tied in knots, Price wasn’t exactly a welcome sight and he suffocated the Hogs. In three innings, he surrendered only one hit and struck out five – two apiece in the eighth and ninth frames – to notch his record CWS fifth win.
Price said the record left him speechless.
“Just giving our team a chance to win is what matters the most,” he said.
What matters now is that the Gamecocks are back where they have gotten awfully comfortable the last three seasons.
South Carolina joins Texas as the only programs that have played in the best-of-three national championship series three times. And as has been the case the last three years, the Gamecocks just find a way – Friday’s win was their seventh in a row in the CWS when facing elimination dating back to 2010.
“Our guys have great perspective,” said Tanner who seeks to join Texas’ Augie Garrido as the only active coach with three or more national championships. “They respect the game. They respect their opponents.
“The thing we do – and these guys deserve all the credit – they just grind it out.”
Now the chance exists to grind out another national crown starting Sunday night.