OMAHA, Neb. – South Carolina coach Ray Tanner had seen this script play out so many times before, but 20 minutes after his team’s thrilling 3-2, 13-inning win over Virginia to advance to the national title series, there’s only one way he could explain the win.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Tanner said.
Everyone knows how you feel, Ray.
The variety of storylines throughout this game is almost tough to comprehend. But entering the contest, the story line was simple. South Carolina was sending its ace pitcher, Michael Roth, to the mound against the Cavaliers, who started ace left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen, the third pick of the MLB draft to the Seattle Mariners.
At the onset, it appeared to be Virginia’s night to succeed. Hultzen was unbelievably good the first three innings against the Gamecocks. He recorded eight strikeouts through eight innings, using a 93-95 mph fastball and 81-82 mph changeup to keep South Carolina’s gritty offensive lineup off balance.
Roth, meanwhile, had two 1-2-3 innings in the first three innings, allowing a run in the second inning to fall behind Virginia 1-0.
Things weren’t looking particularly good for the Gamecocks, at least not until the Cavaliers lifted Hultzen from the game after three innings. The lefty was ill and the Cavaliers weren’t willing to take any chances of extending his fatigued body.
“He said he’d give us anything he had. One time the entire year we had a guy throw over 120 pitches, and they threw 122 pitches. Their futures in this game are always going to be at the forefront,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “He has given us everything he had and I couldn’t live myself if maybe he didn’t pitch well the next inning and cost his team. I made the decision that was right for Hultzen over potentially winning a national title.”
While Hultzen allowed just one hit in three innings, Roth put together another solid performance, striking out three and allowing just a run on four hits in seven innings.
For Virginia, left-handed reliever Kyle Crockett, similar in his motion to Hultzen, was fantastic in relief of the ace. Despite a couple of hiccups, he allowed just two runs on four hits in four innings in perhaps the stickiest of situations for a freshman to inherit.
With both teams pitching at a high level, South Carolina entered the eighth inning with a 2-1 lead, usually a safe situation considering it has stud relievers John Taylor and Matt Price. Taylor, though, ran into some bad luck in the eighth as the Cavaliers tied the game at 3-3 as a result of uncharacteristic Gamecocks miscues.
Sitting at 2-2 heading to the bottom of the eighth, Virginia turned the game over to right-handed reliever Branden Kline, whose longest outing of the year previously was 3 2/3 innings, while South Carolina turned the game over to familiar face Matt Price, whose longest outing of the year was three innings three times this season.
Both pitchers were pushed to the limit with potentially a national title on the line. Kline wasn’t especially crisp with his fastball, but had a fantastic changeup. He struck out seven batters and allowed just three hits in five innings. He also frustrated the Gamecocks offense by getting out of significant jams in the eighth, 10th and 12th innings. Kline, a starting pitcher last season, threw 107 pitches.
“Fortunately, Kline was fresh and he just went out there and kept battling,” O’Connor said. “Kline and Price went toe-to-toe and neither one was going to give in [to the situation]. I was proud of him because he gave us a chance to win.”
Price’s performance was equally Herculean. He struck out five batters and allowed seven hits in a season-high 5 2/3 innings, using a devastating 93-94 fastball to limit Virginia’s hitters. Amazingly, Price worked out of bases-loaded situations in the 10th, 12th and 13th innings, getting double plays to end the 12th and 13th innings. He threw a season-high 95 pitches in the effort.
“I kind of peaked over at O’Connor a few times, I was wondering how long he would leave Kline in out there. I was going to take Price out at the same time. It was like a boxing match,” Tanner said. “Matt has been able to make some big pitches [throughout his career] and they swung the bat well against him. He just made pitches when he needed to. He had been in these situations before the last two years and there aren’t many relievers that have been in tougher situations than him. He’s accustomed to having to get out of jams.”
With both stud relievers maxed to the limit, Virginia was forced to put reliever Cody Winiarski in to work the bottom of the 13th. By that point, the two teams had left a combined 29 runners on base with Virginia 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and South Carolina 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
Brady Thomas began the inning with a single, while shortstop Peter Mooney reached on an error when Winiarski tried to get Adam Matthews, the pinch runner and lead runner, at second base. Robert Beary then laid down another bunt, and once again Winiarski attempted to get the leader runner out, this time at third base. His throw went wide of the bag and down the left-field line, allowing Matthews to score the game-winning run.
After four hours and 25 minutes of grueling baseball, the game was over. The defending national champions, who now have won nine-straight CWS games, are headed back to the national title series, this time to play fellow SEC foe Florida.
This time a year ago, the Gamecocks defeated Oklahoma 3-2 in 12 innings to stay alive in the CWS. The Gamecocks, after beating the Sooners, proceeded to beat rival Clemson twice before beating UCLA in the national title series to claim the program’s first national title.
A second national title just might be on the menu.
“South Carolina has something very special going on right now,” O’Connor said. “The way their club is playing and after last year, it reminded me of Oregon State when it won back-to-back national titles. Just seems like they find a way [to win].”
Game in a nutshell
Player of the game: South Carolina RHP Matt Price – The Gamecocks couldn’t have had a better guy on the mound with the game on the line in extra innings. Price was phenomenal in relief for the Gamecocks. He struck out five batters and allowed seven hits in 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He threw 95 pitches, worked out of several jams and earned his seventh win of the season in the process. Most importantly, he helped guide the Gamecocks back to the national title series.
Turning point: In a game involving two elite teams trading punches on the mound, there aren’t a lot of turning points to highlight. However, the Gamecocks got the ample momentum needed to win in the bottom of the 13th by escaping a huge jam in the top of the inning. South Carolina reliever Matt Price walked David Coleman to begin the inning before Colin Harrington and Keith Werman loaded the bases with a pair of singles. Price, though, buckled down and struck out leadoff hitter Chris Taylor before inducing an inning-ending double play on a liner from John Barr.
Where both teams stand: Virginia had one of its most memorable campaigns in school history and ends the year with an amazing 56-12 overall record. South Carolina, meanwhile, moves on to the national title series to face Florida, a team it took two of three from on the road in the regular season. The Gamecocks likely will send freshman pitcher Forrest Koumas to the mound against the Gators in Game 1 of the series, while UF will counter with ace right-handed pitcher Hudson Randall. Interestingly, Koumas allowed just a run in six innings the last time he faced UF.
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