OMAHA, Neb. -- Konner Wade has Arizona one win away from winning its first national title since 1986.
In a way, Wildcats head coach Andy Lopez can't believe it. But for the second time in this College World Series, the sophomore right-handed pitcher was magnificent in a start, this time shutting down South Carolina on the way to a 5-1 triumph to take a 1-0 lead in the CWS Championship Series.
"The big key to that game was what Konner Wade was able to do. We couldn't do much offensively. He made big pitches when he needed to," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "We tried to make a run at him, but we were never able to do anything. Give Wade credit for that."
Wade started the series opener on a positive note. After the Gamecocks reached base on an uncharacteristic error by third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean to begin the game, Wade worked out of the jam by inducing a ground ball for a double play and striking out Gamecocks first baseman Christian Walker to end the frame.
To better his situation, the Wildcats gave Wade some cushion and allowed him to settle in after scoring two runs in the first inning on a two-run opposite field home run by junior outfielder Robert Refsnyder, who's having a fantastic CWS.
From that point on, Wade was in total control of the Gamecocks, only seemingly working into some trouble in the seventh inning when South Carolina got two-straight singles from Adam Matthews and Kyle Martin to start the inning. However, Matthews, on Martin's single, was thrown out by Refsnyder trying to take third base, essentially quelling the rally.
"I was really surprised Matthews decided to take the extra base. When Konner pitches, I play especially hard. I know what Konner has been through, and he's the strongest kid on our team with the adversity he has gone through," Refsnyder said. "I wasn't expecting Matthews to go, so I just let it rip. That was a big momentum shift."
After the seventh inning, Wade retired six of the seven hitters he faced, with the Gamecocks not getting past first base. For the game, he only struck out three batters, but allowed just one run on six hits in that complete game start. He also threw 110 pitches, 73 for strikes.
"His fastball was moving a lot and he kept it in the zone. He worked both sides of the plate," South Carolina outfielder Evan Marzilli said. "He didn't give up many walks or anything like that, and he was on his game tonight. We weren't able to capitalize on some things."
Lopez was particularly impressed with Wade's changeup.
"He has some armside sink on his fastball, and a really good changeup. He throws strikes and was getting a lot of guys to swing through. They don't square him up easily when he's throwing strikes," he said. "Pitching in this park, I think, is conducive to what he does because he's been doing this at Hi Corbett Field all-season long."
Wade's maturation as a starting pitcher this season continues to be a fascinating story to follow. In this CWS, Wade has thrown a total of 18 innings and allowed one run on 11 hits. He also has struck out seven batters and walked just one.
But while Wade has thrown exceptionally well here and did down the stretch in the NCAA postseason, there was a time back in January when things weren't so kosher with the talented right-hander. This after Wade had outperformed ace starting pitcher Kurt Heyer during fall workouts to the point where Lopez was considering moving Wade to the Friday role.
"At that point, he wasn't close to throwing strikes, and his pitches were two feet off the plate," Lopez said. "I remember going home one night and telling my wife we have to get another arm, he can't throw strikes."
Wade's struggles before the season got bad enough that Lopez was instructing hitters to get out of the batter's box for fear that Wade might plunk them with one of his pitches.
Even after going through that much adversity, Wade eventually put things together and had a productive regular season as the Wildcats' No. 2 starter, and has taken his game to another level in the postseason.
"It was real painful at one point to watch, but to his credit, he battled through it. Five weeks ago, he started coming back and his bullpens were a lot cleaner. He was starting to master his bullpen sessions," Lopez said. "He's got something pretty special going on right now."
Suffice to say, Wade has been one of the biggest sparks for this Arizona team in Omaha. Fellow starting pitcher Kurt Heyer also has thrown well, and as a duo, the two right-handers have allowed just five earned runs and walked just seven batters in four games.
With Wade leading the way, the Wildcats are one win away from winning the national title -- something Lopez didn't see coming four months ago.
"It's unbelievable to see," Lopez said about Wade. "It's just unbelievable to see it occur."
GAME IN REVIEW
PLAYER OF THE GAME: RHP Konner Wade, Arizona -- Wade made plenty of headlines a few days ago when he tossed a complete game shutout in a 4-0 win over UCLA. Well, he didn't quite get the shutout, but he did put together another brilliant performance in a win over South Carolina. Wade struck out just three batters, but allowed just one run on six hits in a complete game performance. He threw 110 pitches, 73 for strikes.
UNSUNG HERO: OF Robert Refsnyder, Arizona -- What a performance the veteran outfielder had both offensively and from a defensive standpoint. Offensively, Refsnyder had a night to remember, going 2-for-3 with an opposite field two-run home run in the first inning before walking twice and recording a single. In the field, Refsnyder made an outstanding throw to third base to throw out South Carolina's Adam Matthews in the seventh inning, effectively keeping the momentum in Arizona's favor.
IT WAS OVER WHEN: Arizona had a huge seventh inning. After Robert Refsnyder's huge throw in the top of the inning thwarted a potential South Carolina rally, the offense went to work in the bottom half of the inning when designated hitter Bobby Brown hit an RBI single to extend the Wildcats' lead of the Gamecocks to 5-1. The additional run allowed UA starting pitcher Konner Wade to settle back into a comfort zone.
WHAT'S NEXT: With their backs against the wall on Monday, the Gamecocks will send senior left-handed pitcher Michael Roth to the mound. Roth was brilliant his last time out. He struck out eight and allowed just one run on two hits in a complete game performance and win over Kent State. Meanwhile, Arizona hasn't designated a starting pitcher, but will go with either Kurt Heyer or James Farris. Heyer allowed two runs on nine hits in 7 1/3 innings against Florida State his last time out, while Farris hasn't started since facing Louisville in the Tucson Regional. He allowed just three runs (two earned) on 12 hits in a complete game performance.