It was the game that would never end.
And it didn't end pretty. But South Carolina doesn't care.
Four hours and 25 minutes after what started as a battle of aces Danny Hultzen and Michael Roth, South Carolina eliminated Virginia 3-2 on a throwing error from relief pitcher Cody Winiarski.
"Obviously South Carolina has got
something very, very special going on right now," Virginia head coach John O'Connor said.
The victory vaults the Gamecocks back into the the national championship series where Florida -- the team South Carolina fittingly shared an SEC regular season title with -- awaits for a three-game tilt to decide the 2011 champion.
"These guys deserve a tremendous amount of credit," South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said. "They've been able to perform in
the most difficult circumstances. We've had some
outstanding players at different times step up.
And it's all I can say, really. I'm just
ecstatic to be part of this group."
That group prides itself on being able to "battle" through tough games and tough innings to find a way to win in the end. It's a formula that worked for the Gamecocks on the way to a national championship last season. And it worked for the first 52 wins of 2011.
But win No. 53 proved to be the toughest to achieve.
By the time South Carolina closer Matt Price and Virginia closer Branden Kline went at it, Hultzen's explosive start was a mere memory.
The No. 2 overall draft pitch was near perfect, striking out eight batters in three innings of work and allowing just one hit -- a blooper from Peter Mooney that fell in shallow center field.
Roth was typical Roth -- giving up an earned runs an four hits in seven innings of work -- but, he too, would soon be forgotten when a Mooney error allowed Virginia's Chris Taylor to score the game-tying run in the eighth inning.
Roth had exited the game just three batters earlier with Carolina clinging to a 2-1 lead. Virginia struck first with a run in the first on a Kenny Swab double play. And Carolina took the lead in the fourth on a two-run double from Brady Thomas that dropped in front of left fielder John Barr.
That was the score until the eighth when John Taylor came on to relieve Roth and an Adrian Morales throwing error put a runner on. After a sacrifice bunt, Price came in to face John Hicks. Hicks ripped a grounder at Mooney that skipped under his glove and allowed the tying run to score.
Little did either team know what was next.
Opportunity after opportunity passed with neither team collecting.
The battle of starters had become a battle of closers: Price vs. Kline, who had also come on in the eighth.
Bases loaded in the eighth for Carolina. Runners on first and second for Virginia in the ninth. Runners on first and second for Carolina in the 10th and 12th. And bases loaded for Virginia in the 10th, 12th and 13th.
And each time, each closer escaped unscathed.
"I kind of peeked over at Coach O'Connor a couple of times," Tanner said. "I was going to see how long he was going to leave Kline out there and I was going to get Matt out at the same time. It was a boxing match."
Virginia appeared to finally be ready to take over in the 12th. But a bases loaded, one-out situation turned into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
The next inning, the Cavs did it one better: bases loaded with nobody out. But Price struck out Taylor and on the very next play Barr smacked a liner to Scott Wingo at second -- he snatched it out of the air and flipped to Mooney covering second base to end the inning.
At that time Price and Kline were both done -- Kline with five scoreless innings on 107 pitches and Price with 5.2 scoreless on 95 pitches.
Winiarski came in to pitch the bottom of the 13th. And South Carolina finally got the break it needed.
"We didn't want to play the next inning, honestly," Roth said, asked how bad the team wanted to avoid an if-necessary game. "We were dying to get out of there. We definitely did not want to carry that into tomorrow."
A Brady Thomas single up the middle started the inning. After Adam Matthews came in to pinch-run, Winiarski fielded Mooney's bunt cleanly but his throw to second was wide and into center field.
On the very next pitch, Robert Beary bunted back to Winiarski who tried to cut down Matthews at third. Again, the throw was off and tricked into foul territory as Matthews hesitated, then raced home and scored the game-winning run.
It probably wasn't the way the Gamecocks envisioned it, but they found a way to get No. 53. And it sends them to the championship series for the second straight year.
it all year long," Beary said. "And I'm not saying we like to do it
all the time, but we have fun doing it. And the
biggest thing is staying relaxed. And if we stay
relaxed and we keep in the game, we keep playing
the game the right way, and sometimes it will work
out for you, and tonight it did."
Monday's game-one of the All-SEC final is scheduled for a 8 p.m. ET first pitch in a rematch of March 26's Forrest Koumas vs. Hudson Randall match-up that the Gators won 2-1.
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