COLLEGE WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Arizona (46-17) vs. South Carolina (49-18)
OMAHA, Neb. -- Arizona coach Andy Lopez called it the Ray Tanner Invitational, South Carolina starting pitcher Michael Roth called it the Hilton Hotel Battle Royale.
At any rate, Arizona and South Carolina are set to butt heads in the CWS Championship Series. The Wildcats are shooting for their first national title since 1986, while the Gamecocks hope to become just the second team in college baseball history (USC the other) to win three-straight national titles.
These two teams have a load of respect for one another, but they're also very familiar with the other, too. The Gamecocks and Wildcats have been staying in the same hotel throughout the past week or so in Omaha, adding even more intrigue to what already should be a fantastic series.
"We've been seeing these guys all week. We've been in different brackets so we haven't had to play, but there's a ton of respect for each other," Roth said. "And probably the worst part is someone will be celebrating this week, while the other team has to hear it.
"That's probably the only downside [to staying in the same hotel]. And the free breakfast."
When it comes to these two teams on the field, it doesn't get better. The Gamecocks and Wildcats have played sensational defense so far in this College World Series, while both teams, for the most part, have gotten good starts from their pitchers.
Arizona, of course, has the distinct advantage from an offensive standpoint, but South Carolina has been very opportunistic and plays much better than its .229 batting average in this CWS. They also have the experience of playing for a title the past two seasons.
The stage is set for the CWS Championship Series.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are led on the mound by outstanding right-handers Kurt Heyer and Konner Wade, and third starter James Farris, who has yet to pitch in the College World Series.
Though the two teams are very close in this area, the slight edge goes to the Wildcats. The Wildcats have a stable one-two punch with Heyer and Wade, while the Gamecocks must get Holmes back on track, who only has thrown 5 2/3 innings in two starts here in Omaha.
Heyer was outstanding his last time out against Florida State. He struck out three batters and allowed just two runs on nine hits in 7 1/3 innings of work. He also threw 122 pitches, 74 for strikes, and is the type of pitcher who can come back on four days of rest.
"I'll tell you one thing, that Heyer is a bulldog," Florida State coach Mike Martin said earlier this week. "He was at 122 pitches and he would've stayed out there and finished it if he needed to."
Wade also has been fantastic in Omaha. The righty has thrown well throughout the NCAA postseason, and against UCLA, he struck out four batters and allowed just five hits in a complete game shutout. Wade threw 109 pitches, 72 for strikes.
Farris made his last start against Louisville in the Tucson Regional. There, he struck out seven and allowed just three runs (two earned) on 12 hits in yet another complete game performance.
For the Gamecocks, you can't say enough the job Roth has done in the CWS. In his last start against Kent State, the lefty struck out eight batters and allowed just one run on two hits in a complete game performance. Meanwhile, Montgomery tossed eight innings of shutout baseball against Arkansas his last time out.
"For the second time today, we got an absolute wonderful game out of our lefties," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said about Roth and Montgomery on Thursday. "Jordan followed up what Michael did. He's had some good games, and this was his best. Jordan was very, very special."
Again, the key for the Gamecocks is Holmes finding his groove. Arizona, though, is feeling pretty good right about now.
Both the Gamecocks and Wildcats have some quality arms in the bullpen, but haven't needed to use too many of them.
There's not much debate that South Carolina has the edge from a bullpen standpoint.
Against Arkansas on Friday night, the Gamecocks didn't get a strong start from Colby Holmes, but relievers Tyler Webb and Matt Price certainly rose to the occasion. Webb struck out three batters and allowed just two hits in four shutout innings. Meanwhile, Price threw the final three innings, striking out five and allowing just one hit.
Overall, Webb has appeared in 38 games this season and has a 1.58 ERA in 57 innings of work. Teams are hitting him at a .209 clip, while Price has appeared in 27 games, recorded 13 saves and has a 3.20 ERA In 76 innings. He also set the record for wins -- five -- in CWS history with the victory against Arkansas on Friday.
"Tyler Webb had a real sneaky fastball and he can move it around the plate. They were pounding the zone," Arkansas third baseman Matt Reynolds said about the duo. "As for Price, he did what he always does, he just found the zone and throws a really good slider."
Arizona has used the same number of relievers -- two -- as South Carolina in this CWS. Kurt Heyer and Konner Wade have routinely gone the distance, while youngsters Tyler Crawford and Mathew Troupe are the only relievers with innings pitched in the last week.
Crawford threw 1 2/3 innings of shutout work against Florida State to open the CWS, while Troupe, the closer, threw 2 2/3 innings of shutout baseball against the Seminoles. As a whole, Crawford has appeared in 15 games and has a 3.05 ERA in 38 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Troupe has appeared in 23 games, recorded six saves and has a 3.60 ERA in 35 innings.
Otherwise, the Wildcats hope to avoid relying on the bullpen too much.
"Our bullpen hasn't been as spectacular as I'd like it to be," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "Now as I told our starters about five weeks into the season, I'll come out and talk to you, but I'm just going to ask you how the weather is on the mound and what it's like in the dugout, because I'm going back in. When it's 125-130 pitches, I'll come back out and get you and make a pitching change."
After beating Arkansas on Friday to advance to the CWS Championship Series, South Carolina sports information director Andrew Kitick brought Arizona's statistics to Tanner in his hotel room in the wee hours of the morning, while he was attempting to enjoy a slice of pepperoni pizza.
Tanner had hoped to get a good night of sleep, while enjoying a bite to eat. Not anymore, and all it took was a quick glance at Arizona's offensive numbers.
"They're hitting .330 and there are no easy outs in that lineup," Tanner said. "I started going through it [their numbers] and didn't get much sleep after that. I got a chance to watch them in the Regionals and they're just shooting balls in both alleys. And I've been to Hi Corbett Field, it's a big yard, and it's hard to get it out of there. But their plate discipline is incredible."
The Wildcats are hitting .330 overall as a team and have a .277 average in the CWS. They defeated Florida State 4-3 to begin the tournament before shutting out UCLA 4-0. They finished off their side of the bracket with a 10-3 win, outscoring the bracket by an impressive 18-6 margin.
Here in Omaha, veteran outfielder Robert Refsnyder and freshman catcher Riley Moore have been outstanding. Refsnyder is hitting .400 with six hits and three RBIs, while Moore is hitting .400 with four hits in 10 at bats. Also keep an eye on shortstop Alex Mejia, who's hitting .357 with five hits and an RBI.
From an overall standpoint, second baseman Trent Gilbert (.272/0/39) has gotten some big hits over the past week, while Johnny Field continues to lead the team with a .373 average, three homers and 44 RBIs. Also keep an eye on third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean (.360/1/60) and designated hitter Bobby Brown (.353/5/58), who, too, has recorded some huge hits over the past couple of weeks.
The Gamecocks have pitched well in Omaha and recorded some clutch hits, but are hitting just .229 as a team. Keep a close eye on first baseman Christian Walker, who's hitting .375 with six hits and an RBI, while second baseman Chase Vergason, who has been very hot down the stretch this season, is hitting .333 with five hits and three RBIs in this CWS.
It's also important to remember speedy outfielder Tanner English (.303/0/23), outfielder Evan Marzilli (.288/2/31), shortstop Joey Pankake (.273/2/27) and power-hitting third baseman LB Dantzler (.266/10/48). Senior outfielder Adam Matthews (.235/5/26) also has potential to string together some solid offensive performances.
That certainly rings true with Arizona and South Carolina. The Wildcats and Gamecocks have been outstanding at the CWS, and it's no surprise the two teams have been near flawless from a defensive standpoint.
The Wildcats have an excellent infield and an athletic outfield. The left side of the Arizona infield has been magnificent in Omaha with third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean and Alex Mejia making multiple outstanding plays. Meanwhile, second baseman Trent Gilbert has done a great job, while the Wildcats outfield has been consistently great.
Arizona's defense has caught everyone's attention, especially the play of Mejias-Brean and Mejia, two of the best defensive players in college baseball.
"That's one of those things [defense]. I don't know if you've ever been to Tucson in May. And the field gets real hard. And the ground, it feels like you're on a blacktop sometimes. So our guys are taking ground balls off a real hard field every single day," Lopez said. "When you come to a facility like this where the field plays very soft, I think it's an advantage for our guys, I really do."
While Arizona has been a great defensive team the entire season, the Gamecocks have evolved into a good defensive club as the season progressed. Third baseman LB Dantzler has consistently been good fielding his position -- one of the best in the SEC -- while first baseman Christian Walker is consistent and has shown a strong glove here in Omaha. Freshman shortstop Joey Pankake also has been very smooth with the glove and has shown great range.
Perhaps most impressive is the play of center fielder Evan Marzilli. It's no surprise that Marzilli is making plays, but he dazzled the TD Ameritrade Park crowd in the Gamecocks' first game with a leaping grab that probably saved a Florida run. He has continued to make acrobatic and athletic plays.
"Well, you know, it's one of those things that throughout the season, I felt we were going to have to play defense if we were going to be a consistent team," Tanner said. "LB has been very good for us the entire season. And Vergason, when he broke into the lineup, was making all the plays. And Pankake was a little inconsistent at first, but he's been really, really good down the stretch."
"We're just playing much better. Those guys have made improvements."
Arizona has the slight edge in a series between two great defensive teams.
"I was a young grad assistant in 1975, and I heard John Wooden, in my presence, say your team will represent who you are on and off the field," Lopez said. "And I'll believe that forever, and that's why he [Ray Tanner] has done a marvelous job."
To say the Gamecocks have been comfortable in Omaha the past three seasons would be a major understatement. The Gamecocks were carrying a 12-game CWS winning streak before Arkansas tripped them up in their second game last week.
Since that point, though, it has been much the same for the Gamecocks. They've gotten all the clutch hits, made all the fantastic plays, and Tanner, as usual, just seems to be pushing all the right buttons.
"There are the guys I've been watching on television when I'm playing summer ball the last two years," Arizona outfielder Robert Refsnyder said. "They play the game of baseball the right way and try to take the extra base. They play sound baseball and do well offensively with two outs. They get a guy on second base, they do a nice job of getting him in to score."
Chasing a third-straight national title, the intangibles definitely point the Gamecocks' way. However, don't expect them to be thinking about that third title.
"You can't allow yourself to get into that mode. To players and coaches, that's not part of the discussion, but it's not like you're trying to avoid it," Tanner said. "We're pretty good, but we're not the 1927 New York Yankees. We've played 28 one-run games."