No matter what happens tonight in Chapel Hill, N.C., you have to consider Chad Holbrook’s first season as South Carolina’s baseball coach a rousing success.
The Gamecocks’ NCAA tournament super regional at North Carolina concludes at 7 o’clock tonight on ESPN2 with a winner-take-all Game 3, after USC won 8-0 on Sunday to force this game. (North Carolina is the home team tonight, batting last because it won a coin flip.)
After all the injuries and adversity Holbrook’s first team dealt with throughout the season, forcing a Game 3 in a super regional on the home field of the tournament’s top overall seed – a team that hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season – well, that’s a success.
USC has a couple things on its side tonight. The Gamecocks are 8-1 in elimination games since the start of the 2010 tournament. They can make it 9-1 tonight.
Moreover, of North Carolina’s 10 losses this season, compared to 56 wins, eight were to opponents who started left-handed pitchers.
USC tonight will go with Jack Wynkoop, a freshman lefty whose only tournament start was in the regional clincher against Liberty – four innings, six hits, two runs, one walk and three strikeouts. USC’s entire bullpen is fresh, so Wynkoop will have help if needed. North Carolina tonight will counter with sophomore righty Benton Moss.
Wynkoop has performed well of late. In his past five starts, he has a 1.84 earned-run average. Moss has not done well lately. He has a 5.53 ERA in his past five starts, during which he lasted 4 1/3, 4 1/3, 5 1/3, 5 2/3 and eight innings – a strong performance against Georgia Tech, with two hits and no runs. His other four starts out of those five were stinkers.
The winner of the Chapel Hill Super Regional gets North Carolina State in its College World Series opener. The Wolfpack beat Rice in two games in the Raleigh Super Regional and are going to Omaha for the second time ever, and first time since 1968. The Wolfpack finally broke through this weekend. This year marks their 22nd tournament appearance in 28 years.
In terms of USC’s starter tonight, Wynkoop has striking parallels to lefty Jordan Montgomery, whose complete game Sunday boosted USC into Game 3. Neither has overpowering stuff, but both rely on strike throwing and changing speeds.
As a freshman last year, Montgomery started the regional clincher against Clemson and the first of two elimination games against Arkansas in Omaha. That was the middle of USC’s three elimination wins in two days, which seems to have set the foundation for the resilience USC showed Sunday, when Holbrook put Montgomery out there in another big spot, another elimination game, and he came through against another elite team. Of his four NCAA tournament starts, three are against strong teams – Clemson, Arkansas and North Carolina.
Wynkoop has yet to face a team of that level in the tournament, since his only start was against Liberty. But between the Clemson regional clincher last year and the Arkansas win in Omaha, USC has had success lately with starting freshman lefties in enormous games. Moreover, Wynkoop’s four starts before Liberty were Kentucky, at LSU, Georgia and at Mississippi State. Only Georgia could be considered a true slouch opponent out of those four.
However you slice it, tonight is a momentous game for USC. The Gamecocks have played 18 NCAA tournament rounds on the road and have advanced just three times. In terms of individual games, they are 36-32 on the road in the NCAA tournament, having gone 1-1 this weekend.
If USC wins tonight, there can be no understating the victory’s value. Considering how rare the win would be, the quality of the opponent and the road setting, it would be one of the biggest wins in school history – and under a 42-year-old, first-year coach, no less.
USC is 1-4 all-time in super regional Game 3s, falling to Louisiana-Lafayette in 2000, at Stanford in 2001, at Georgia in 2006 and at North Carolina in 2007. USC beat Miami in Columbia in 2002, with a thrilling ninth-inning comeback. Down 4-1 entering the inning, USC scored five in the top of the ninth to win 6-4. It was an insane inning, with USC tying the game at four before Miami even recorded an out. USC scored its final two runs of the inning with two outs – on a wild pitch and a passed ball, both with Drew Meyer at the plate.
That was an enormous game for USC coach Ray Tanner, who had arrived in 1997 and built the program back up, only to lose in super regionals in 2000 (as the No. 1 overall seed) and 2001. He finally broke through in 2002, bringing USC to Omaha for the first time since 1985. USC finished second in Omaha in 2002.
(USC tonight will try to make North Carolina the fifth No. 1 overall seed to fall short of Omaha in 15 years of this tournament format. It last happened with Vanderbilt in 2007, when the Commodores lost in a regional – something North Carolina almost did to Florida Atlantic this year.)
This Chapel Hill super regional marks the fifth time that USC has dropped the opening game of a regional or super regional. It happened in 1977 (South Alabama), 1983 (James Madison), 2001 (Stanford) and 2007 (North Carolina). Remember, super regionals didn’t exist before 1999. The only one of those four rounds that USC advanced out of was the 1977 regional in Columbia. The Gamecocks won four games in three days (East Carolina, South Alabama and Wake Forest twice) for their second College World Series appearance.
In that Miami super regional in 2002, USC won the first game, dropped the second and then won the third – for its only super regional Game 3 victory. The past three years, USC didn’t need a super regional Game 3 to reach Omaha, a place it has never gone in four straight years. The Gamecocks are now 19-1 in regionals and super regionals since 2010, with their only loss coming Saturday to North Carolina.
USC went 11-1 in the 2010 tournament, 10-0 in 2011 and 9-3 last year. The Gamecocks are now 4-1 in this year’s tournament. So they are 34-5 in the tournament since 2010.
In Game No. 40 tonight, they will try for a historic win. If they get it, they will tie rival Clemson for 11th place on Omaha’s all-time appearances list, with 12.