The first five and a half innings of game two of the Super Regional between South Carolina and Oklahoma was a dream game for baseball purists. After rain suspended the game until Monday afternoon, the game turned into a debacle that would make even the most casual of observers cringe. The final three and a half innings were marred by walks, errors, a costly baserunning miscue, and of course more rain. In the end, none of it mattered to Carolina; all that matters is that they are headed back to Omaha for the third consecutive year. Carolina topped Oklahoma 5-1 to win the Super Regional and extend that winning streak to 21 games. They will put that streak on the line Saturday night against Florida where it is expected that Michael Roth and Hudson Randall will go at it one last time.
"I'm kind of at a loss for words," Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said. "To be able to get a chance to continue to play after the way we started… we didn't start like we wanted. The team stayed the course and was resilient, and if you play the game the right way sometimes they even out and we got some of those games back. We started winning our share in the league and got a chance to go to the postseason. These guys have done one heck of a job."
Tyler Webb took the mound for South Carolina, now 45-17, in the bottom of the sixth and things started off good enough. Webb struck out Tanner Toal to begin the frame, but things quickly fell apart. A low throw from Joey Pankake that Christian Walker couldn't hang on to allowed Caleb Bushyhead to reach, and Webb walked two on eight pitches after striking out Erik Ross. With the bases loaded and two outs, Webb battled back from 2-0 (ten straight balls) to get Cody Reine to fly out and end the threat.
Carolina would be first to break through in the seventh. Tanner English laid down a two-strike sacrifice bunt to move TJ Costen to third, who entered to pinch run after a double from Connor Bright started the inning. First baseman Evan Mistich fielded the bunt and inexplicably threw to third. The ball got past Garrett Carey and into left field and the Gamecocks took a 1-0 lead.
"I told TJ they'll try to make a play on you at third base," Tanner said. This is the type of game, they're not taking the out (at first). It's late. I don't think he thought there would be a play. He was halfway sliding. Then it rolled down there and that was a good feeling."
After Chase Vergason sacrificed English to third, a wild pitch from Steven Okert scored English and Carolina led 2-0.
"My mindset was pressure," Tanner said. "I wanted it to be with the opposition and not with us. He can really run. I told him don't worry about bunting to first or third. Bunt it back to the pitcher. At least you keep it between the lines."
Oklahoma used a pair of walks from Webb and Evan Beal to force Tanner to bring in Matt Price for an extended appearance to pick up the final nine outs. Mistich missed on a hit-and-run that would prove costly as Jack Mayfield was thrown out trying to steal third.
"When I came in, I kind of figured they'd try to bunt. After the first pitch was a ball and the guy took it, they tried to do a hit and run. I threw it up, he swung and missed, and Dante (Rosenberg) made a good play."
Mistich would eventually single to right center to score Carey, but instead of having runners on the corners and no outs it was runner on first and one out. Price struck out pinch-hitter Chase Simpson and got Bushyhead to fly out to left to end the inning and preserve a 2-1 lead.
Carolina would use two of the most beautiful plays in baseball when executed correctly to extend the lead in the eighth. With Adam Matthews on first, LB Dantzler executed the hit-and-run to perfection, singling through the open right side to move Matthews to third. After Costen struck out after attempting a safety squeeze, English pushed a bunt between the mound and second for a two-out RBI single, then Vergason delivered a two-run double to the gap in left center to put the game out of reach.
"It's been a while since I got a bunt down fair, so I figured I was due," English said. "I thought I'd have a fair shot to beat it out, and I did."
For the third year it was Price recording the last out to set off the celebration and send the Gamecocks to Omaha. Price would also pick up his 1th save of the season and the 41st of his legendary career, tying Georgia's Joshua Fields for the most saves in SEC history. Price gave up two hits in three innings, walking one and striking out four. Webb picked up the win to improve to 6-1 on the season, while Steven Okert took the loss to fall to 9-8.
"The fans have been amazing the whole time," Price said. "Just coming into the game, it gave me some chills. After the game, I was just taking everything in. This could possibly be my last game at Carolina Stadium, so I was just taking everything in. The fans have been great."
English was 2-for-3 with one RBI and two runs scored, Dantzler was 2-for-4 with a run scored and Vergason was 1-for-1 with a pair of sacrifices and drove in two runs. Mistich was 1-for-2 with an RBI to lead Oklahoma while White and Ross had the other two hits for the Sooners, who finished their season 42-25.
While Omaha is a familiar place for several of the Gamecock players, many are making the trip for their first time.
"Since I was 12, I thought about what it would be like," Vergason said. "It's almost surreal. I'm here getting to do it. It's an honor being with these guys. I can't wait."
While Carolina and Florida have been fixtures in Omaha the last few years, there are some that aren't. Stony Brook will be making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament and Oregon or Kent State will be heading there as well.
"We've been headed that way a few years," Tanner said. "Certainly with Stony Brook, Coach Esposito told me from day one that they're really good. To go to Alex Box Stadium and do what they did, that's impressive. That's not a Cinderella really. They're beyond Cinderella."
The contest against Florida is scheduled for a 9:00 EST.
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