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.
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
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
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
“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.
Carolina walks to the finals
South Carolina 3, Arkansas 2