OMAHA, Neb. -- One second a team thinks they have South Carolina right where they want them. The next, well, it's painfully obvious they don't.
For the Florida Gators, at least in the College World Series, the Gamecocks have been something straight out of a horror movie. They've looked good at times against South Carolina, but as was the case once again on Saturday night, when least expected, the Gamecocks struck on multiple occasions on the way to a 7-3 win, their 12th-straight in the CWS and 22nd-straight in the NCAA postseason.
"We played really well through the first four innings," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "Then they beat us in every phase of the game. They out-pitched us and out-hit us and played better defense. That was a really well-played game by South Carolina, and obviously not one of our best."
Entering Saturday's contest against the Gamecocks, the Gators were confident in left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson's ability to once again tame that lineup. In his previous two starts against South Carolina this season, Johnson was outstanding. He had tossed 15 innings, struck out nine and allowed just 10 hits and four runs.
Through the first four innings of this contest, it looked like recent history was destined to repeat itself. Johnson was anything but ultra sharp throughout, but found a way to quell some potential rallies, forcing the Gamecocks to leave seven runners on base through four innings. Meanwhile, luck seemed to go the Gators way offensively, as they scored two runs in the third inning on a Preston Tucker double to left field -- a ball in which Gamecocks outfielder Tanner English misjudged -- to take a 2-0 lead.
Then, in the fifth inning, the tide turned in an instant, as so often is the case with the Gamecocks, who seem to piggyback on each other during intense rallies.
South Carolina outfielder Evan Marzilli led off the fifth inning with a double, while Christian Walker singled and Adam Matthews walked to load the bases with no outs. That brought up designated hitter Erik Payne, who entered the game with just four at bats in the postseason.
In true Gamecocks fashion, Payne, the most unexpected clutch hitter, deposited a base-clearing triple to the wall in right-center field, giving the Gamecocks a 3-2 lead. South Carolina followed that up with an RBI double from LB Dantzler and an RBI single from second baseman Chase Vergason to extend the lead to 5-2 and seize control.
"Erik was a freshman last year and had a tough time. He didn't get much playing time. It was a tough adjustment for him. He's bigger, stronger and developed a lot more," South Carolina Ray Tanner said. "Those guys know when you get a crack, you have to be able to go out there and fight. And they've learned that from the older guys."
With a clear lead, the Gamecocks went on cruise control. Veteran left-handed pitcher Michael Roth finished his start, which seemed to be shaky at one point early in the game, in impressive fashion. He struck out three batters and allowed three runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. He also threw 54 of his 98 pitches for strikes.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks shifted their fantastic play to the field to back up the bullpen duo of Tyler Webb and Matt Price. Webb recorded two outs in the game, while Price received some help in the eighth inning when Evan Marzilli robbed Florida leadoff hitter Daniel Pigott of a sure triple, and perhaps even more, with a tremendous leaping grab.
To Price -- who earned his 42nd career save, surpassing former Georgia reliever Joshua Fields among the All-Time SEC list -- and others, that dramatic catch seemed to put the game away, it also characteristic of what has become common-place during the Gamecocks' title runs the past two seasons.
"There's a reason they have such a winning streak," O'Sullivan said. "They got some momentum in the fifth and I felt like it got passed down from guy to guy. They were able to get some momentum going and that was the difference in the game.”
While South Carolina finished the contest in impressive fashion, making clutch plays and some spectacular grabs, the Gators left the ballpark disgusted with a terrible ninth inning that included two errors that ultimately led to two additional insurance runs to give the Gamecocks a 7-3 lead and a substantial advantage.
The Gamecocks haven’t won their side of the bracket in Omaha with just one win over Florida. But much like the last two trips to the College World Series, the Gamecocks took the smallest of opportunities and turned them into substantial rallies, riding the wave of momentum until the final out was recorded.
In the postgame press conference, Gamecocks starting pitcher Michael Roth had his head resting on his fist, seemingly bored with what has now become the traditional game-winning press conference.
South Carolina once again is comfortable, and that’s not good news for any team hoping to knock them off their perch.
GAME IN REVIEW
PLAYER OF THE GAME: OF Evan Marzilli -- The Gamecocks have several special role players, but few are more important than the veteran athletic outfielder. Marzilli went 2-for-4 with a run scored, and set the stage for the five-run sixth by starting the inning with a double. Additionally, Marzilli made a tremendous defensive play in the eighth with a leaping grab to rob Florida outfielder Daniel Pigott of a sure hit. The Gators went quietly after the outstanding play.
UNSUNG HERO: DH Erik Payne, South Carolina -- The Gamecocks always seem to have someone who rises to the occasion and has a tremendous showing in the College World Series. Payne just might be that guy this season. Though he only went 1-for-4, the designated hitter with just four postseason at bats had the biggest hit of the game in the fifth inning with a base-clearing triple to the gap in right-center to make it 3-2 Gamecocks after previously trailing 2-0. Payne's hit turned the tide of the contest.
GAME WAS OVER WHEN: South Carolina entered the ninth inning only leading the Gators 5-3, a good, but not great, lead against a team with the type of offensive talent as Florida. The Gators, though, essentially gifted the Gamecocks two additional insurance runs in the inning with some sketchy defense leading to two errors and two runs. South Carolina was in total control with the 7-3 advantage heading to the bottom of the ninth.
WHAT'S NEXT: With the win, the Gamecocks find themselves in familiar territory, in the winner's bracket. The Gamecocks will face SEC foe Arkansas on Monday night. The matchup will feature South Carolina right-handed pitcher Colby Holmes (7-1, 2.80) and Arkansas right-handed pitcher Ryne Stanek (7-4, 2.91). Meanwhile, the Gators head to the loser's bracket to face Kent State. The Gators will go with consistent right-hander Hudson Randall (9-2, 2.61) while the Flashes expect to counter with Ryan Bores (9-3, 3.35).