OMAHA, Neb. -- South Carolina still is the defending national champion until further notice and it showed that once again in a thrilling 5-4 win over Texas A&M at the College World Series.
The last opening round game at the CWS couldn't have begun worse for the Gamecocks, or better for the Aggies. With nerves playing a big part in the top of the first inning with South Carolina stud left-handed pitcher Michael Roth on the mound, the Aggies connected for four runs in the inning off an RBI single from Jacob House and a three-RBI triple from Brandon Wood.
Suddenly, just like that, the Gamecocks were down 4-0 and the Aggies seemed to have all the momentum. The defending champs looked to already be in some serious trouble.
"Going into the first inning tonight, I had been paying attention to other games and other pitchers in the first inning," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "In all four games, every pitcher seemed to scuffle a bit."
Having taken the first punch from the Aggies, the defending champs had a choice: They could continue to take punches from the Aggies, who are making their first trip to Omaha since 1999, or they could bounce back in the same inning like they've done many times in the last year.
The Gamecocks chose the latter option. They scored their first run on a balk, their second and third runs on an error and their fourth, and game-tying run on an RBI single from shortstop Peter Mooney.
South Carolina erased the four-run deficit like it was routine. That occurrence allowed Roth, the head-strong left-hander, to get in a groove. In the second inning, Roth didn't allow a run and just one hit. And after that frame, he was back to his old ways, darting the strike zone with a solid breaking ball and peppering the strike zone with a fastball that topped out at 88 mph.
"The game really couldn't have started better for us. We felt like were going to roll then just like that nerves got to us as well and it turns into an eight-inning game," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. "Both pitchers settled in, defenses made some big plays and both starters did a very, very good job."
Roth was especially crisp the rest of the way, allowing just two hits after the first inning. He struck out eight batters (walked five) and allowed four runs (none earned) on four hits in 7 1/3 innings.
Amazingly, Roth increased his innings without an earned run to 37 1/3 innings.
"I think some of the other pitchers want some of that luck. I have all these unearned runs. That's pretty cool," he said. "The first inning I didn't adjust to the strike zone well enough and I tried to collect myself."
A&M starting pitcher Ross Stripling mimicked Roth's performance after the first inning. He used a strong curveball to keep the Gamecocks off balance and finished the contest with six strikeouts. He also allowed just four runs (two earned) on seven hits in eight innings.
Despite being in total control, Stripling was forced to come out of the game after eight innings with his pitch count sitting at 114.
"I had to deal my nerves in the first and struggles. I was in over my head in that inning, but I settled in as quick as I could," Stripling said. "It was really fun to pitch out there. I settled in and pitched well."
With Roth out of the game after 7 1/3 innings and Stripling lifted after eight, the game boiled down to the bullpens, a clear advantage for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina dominant submariner John Taylor retired all three batters he faced in an inning of work and recorded a strikeout. The Gamecocks then turned things over to hard-throwing closer Matt Price, who topped 94 mph in his 2/3 innings of work in the inning.
Those performances were the difference.
The Aggies, with the game tied 4-4, began the bottom of the ninth with Kyle Martin on the mound. However, Martin was lifted for closer Nick Fleece after he allowed a leadoff double to Robert Beary. The Gamecocks proceeded to load the bases on Fleece before Gamecocks clutch hitter Scott Wingo ripped an RBI single to the right-field wall with bases loaded to win the game.
As has been the case many times this season, the Aggies had issues out of the bullpen. South Carolina, meanwhile, flexed its mighty muscles with the ultimate strength of its team -- the bullpen.
"We definitely didn't have a good chance [against their bullpen]," Childress said. "Those two guys did what they've done all season long. They really did a great job."
Texas A&M dealt South Carolina a tough blow to begin Sunday's game. But in the end, the Gamecocks got all the clutch pitches and hits.
There's a reason this team is the defending champion.
Perhaps getting the first walk-off hit in the new stadium after getting the last walk-off hit at Rosenblatt Stadium is a good omen after all.
Game in a nutshell
Player of the game: South Carolina LHP Michael Roth -- The talented left-handed pitcher had some issues in the first couple of innings against the Aggies, but only got stronger as the game progressed. Though he didn't earn a win, Roth struck out eight batters and allowed no earned runs (four total runs) on four hits in 7 1/3 innings. Roth threw 122 pitches and lowered his earned-run average to a ridiculously low 0.97.
Turning point: The Aggies couldn’t have asked for a better start against the Gamecocks. They scored four runs in the first inning on a Jacob House RBI single and a Brandon Wood three-RBI triple. But just when the Aggies thought they had everything under control, the Gamecocks’ championship-like instincts entered the equation. The Gamecocks responded in the bottom half of the first inning with four runs of their own, taking any momentum the Aggies garnered away from them. The response by the Gamecocks also allowed starting pitcher Michael Roth to get back in his normal routine.
Where both teams stand: With the win over the Aggies, the Gamecocks advance to the winners bracket to face Virginia, which defeated California earlier in the day. The Gamecocks will send sophomore right-handed pitcher Colby Holmes to the mound against the Cavaliers. He has a 3.78 ERA in 81 innings … The Aggies, meanwhile, head to the losers bracket and will face California in an elimination game on Tuesday. To no surprise, A&M will start sophomore right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha. Wacha, one of the nation’s elite starters, has a 2.12 ERA in 123 innings.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org