OMAHA, Neb. – To end a champion’s reign takes a superlative effort and this year in college baseball, some dose of the truly unexpected.
Arizona got exactly that level of effort for two days – especially on the mound – and three unlikely heroes coming through in the clutchest of situations in Game 2 of the College World Series national championship series.
As a result of that recipe, the Wildcats are the 2012 college baseball national champions after a gritty 4-1 triumph against South Carolina to complete a two-game sweep in the finals.
UA (48-17) claimed its first national crown since 1986 and joined a very elite group of programs with at least four championships: Southern California (12), LSU (6), Arizona State (5), Cal State Fullerton (4) and Miami (4).
With Monday’s clincher, UA coach Andy Lopez won a national title 20 years after he led Pepperdine to the top – the longest span between crowns for a coach in NCAA history. Lopez also joined Texas coach Augie Garrido as the only men who have guided two different teams to national championships.
|Wildcats starting pitcher James Farris had South Carolina tied in knots for 6 innings in a surprise start|
Carolina’s bid for a third straight national championship and a piece of history came up short, as the Gamecocks could never completely light the fuse offensively and scored only two runs total in the two losses.
“We battled hard,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “We did everything possible to win (Monday) except come up with a few more hits.
“We just didn’t get enough runs on the board and they pitched really well against us and played defense.”
Arizona’s James Farris was the main reason why Monday, as the Wildcats’ No. 3 starter came off a 22-day hiatus and was spectacular to keep the game close while USC’s Michael Roth added to his CWS legend with another sterling performance.
The Gamecocks (49-20) scratched out only two hits off Farris, three in the game, and didn’t advance a base runner into scoring position until the seventh inning.
Farris’ performance made him one of the heroes, but he needed company for Arizona to complete the story and he got plenty of company in an eventful ninth inning.
The Gamecocks knotted the score 1-1 in the seventh when a leadoff walk to Christian Walker yielded the tying run after Adam Matthews chopped a hit-and-run single through the right side and Kyle Martin chased in Walker with a 3-1 groundout.
|Arizona's Robert Refsnyder goes airborne as he scores the go-ahead run in the 9th inning in Monday night's 4-1 victory.|
With Carolina closer Matt Price out for his third inning of work, UA right fielder Robert Refsnyder led off the ninth by lashing a single to left field, his second hit of the game and fourth in the championship series.
Seth Mejias-Brean bunted Refsnyder into scoring position, prompting Tanner to intentionally walk Bobby Brown to set up a potential double play.
Sophomore Brandon Dixon – a defensive replacement at first base in the sixth inning – stepped in with a .240 batting average and 13 RBIs all season. But when Price came inside with his patented slider, Dixon turned on it and yanked it just fair inside the third-base line to send Refsnyder dashing home with the go-ahead run.
Lopez admitted after the game that he nearly pinch-hit for Dixon.
“My first at-bat, I had a chance to put us up by another run and I popped out to first base,” Dixon said. “In the ninth, I got a 1-1 count and I was sitting on a slider. I got it and rolled it over through the third-base line and got the run in.”
Suddenly trailing, Tanner summoned left-hander Tyler Webb and he blazed three pitches past Riley Moore to strike him out for the second out. Webb got ahead 1-and-2 against nine-hole hitter Trent Gilbert, the lone UA regular hitting under .300, before Gilbert delivered, pulling a soft liner into right field to score two more runs.
“I tried to keep the game small,” Gilbert said. “I knew we had runners in scoring position and I was just trying to get a hit. Pretty much as simple as that.”
|Hoisting the new hardware: The Arizona players lift their national championship trophy|
To nobody’s surprise, South Carolina didn’t make things all that simple in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Walker smacked on opposite-field single to left on Arizona reliever Matt Troupe’s first pitch of the inning and LB Dantzler walked. Troupe struck out Matthews but walked Kyle Martin to load the bases and bring Tanner English to the plate as the potential winning run.
English found a 1-and-1 offering to his liking and rifled a ball through the middle that seemed destined for center field. But Gilbert soared to snare the ball and dove to the second-base bag, almost doubling Dantzler off to end the game.
“To be honest, I thought it was going to go through, I really did,” Lopez said. “I have so much respect for South Carolina. I knew they wouldn’t go quietly. I just knew. I sensed it.”
With hearts still pounding around the ballpark – especially in the Wildcats dugout and among the smattering of UA fans – Troupe coaxed a shallow fly ball from Grayson Greiner into right-center field that Refsnyder settled under and called center fielder Joey Rickard off of, before cradling the ball for the third out and triggering the customary dog pile I the middle of the diamond.
A national championship dog pile, the first for the Wildcats in over a quarter of century.
“It’s not always the best team that wins; it’s the hottest team” said Lopez, who brought two Florida teams to Omaha as national seeds and another Arizona team in 2004. “And these guys got hot at the right time.”
Hot enough to dismantle a Gamecocks’ crew that overachieved just to get to Omaha and simply ran out of offense in the final two games.
|South Carolina senior LHP Michael Roth started a CWS record 8th game and was spectacular for 7.1 innings|
South Carolina ended the CWS hitting only .181 and scored only 16 runs in six games. In the two championship series games, the Gamecocks were 9-for-62 (.145).
Plenty of credit goes to Arizona’s two starters – Konner Wade threw a complete-game six hitter in the first game of the finals series. Farris was even better.
The sophomore righty surrendered only one hit in the first six innings, coming at the Gamecocks with breaking pitches and getting them to chase at fastballs out of the strike zone.
With Roth being his normal self and limiting UA to one run in 7.1 innings, Farris had to be rock-solid.
Farris was a bit of a surprise as Lopez’s choice because ace Kurt Heyer won two earlier CWS games. But Heyer was on only three days’ rest.
Lopez wrestled with the decision – and his emotions – saying when he left the ballpark Sunday night, Heyer was the likely starter.
“My thought was when I left here, we probably need to pitch Heyer, because I knew they would be throwing Roth,” Lopez said. “I have so much respect for Ray’s club and Roth, so I thought ‘Let’s match it up.’ ”
Even after the decision was made, Lopez conceded he had second thoughts.
“When I woke up (Monday) morning I went ‘Farris against Roth: We’re probably going to be playing on Tuesday,’ ” Lopez said. “Really. I said we’re probably going Tuesday. We have Heyer and we’ll try to match up Heyer against somebody else.”
|Refsnyder delivers the ball he caught for the final out to Arizona coach Andy Lopez, who became the second coach to lead two programs to a national championship|
That’s a decision Lopez won’t ever have to make, thanks to some unheralded players stepping on college baseball’s biggest stage and delivering a Wildcat win for the ages.
With a starting lineup featuring one senior and a core group of four junior position players, it seemed awfully likely that somebody named Refsnyder, Rickard, Alex Mejia of Set Mejias-Brean would come through with the biggest hit when it was needed the most.
Instead it was a sophomore reserve and a light-hitting freshman infielder, along with a sophomore starting pitcher and a freshman closer who finished it off.
“We just pride ourselves
on playing the game of baseball the right way, and that starts when you’re a
freshman here and you just work hard at it every day,” said Refsnyder, who was
voted the Most Outstanding Player.
“This team was all about guys stepping up and doing whatever we needed at that moment to help us win.”
And for this moment in college baseball time, nobody did it better than the Wildcats.