An era for South Carolina baseball ended on Tuesday afternoon, when the Gamecocks lost 5-4 to North Carolina in their winner-take-all NCAA tournament super regional Game 3.
When USC begins next season, it will have, at most, two players on its roster with a national championship ring – relief pitcher Forrest Koumas and designated hitter Brison Celek. Both were juniors this season and played minor roles on this team.
Koumas played a big part in the 2011 title, as a freshman. Celek redshirted that year and played in just nine games in 2010 as a freshman. Moreover, Celek was a fourth-year junior this season and was drafted, so he could end up turning pro. Koumas was not drafted.
You can’t really say USC’s golden era is done, because there’s no telling what the Gamecocks will do next season. They might follow the 2010 and 2011 titles and 2012 runner-up finish with another College World Series appearance.
But with seniors like closer Tyler Webb departing, the final links to USC’s title teams – at least in terms of players – are fading away.
What to make, then, of these past four seasons?
USC went 35-5 in the NCAA tournament during that span. It lost twice to last year’s national champion, Arizona, and twice to a team that could win the title this year, North Carolina.
The Gamecocks went to four straight super regionals, after not going to that round since 2007. Next season, USC can equal its best-ever super regional appearances streak. The Gamecocks went to five straight from 2000-04 and made three Omaha trips in that span.
These past four years were clearly the best stretch any USC sports team has ever had. And while the success might not be finished, these four years concluded on a Tuesday afternoon when USC came very close to reaching its school-record fourth straight College World Series.
But in the end, USC failed to advance for the 16th time in 19 NCAA tournament road rounds and fell to 1-5 in super regional Game 3s. USC is 36-33 in NCAA tournament road games, compared to 58-8 at home, when they have advanced in 19 of 21 rounds. This super regional marked the fifth time that USC dropped the opening game of a regional or super regional. The only time USC advanced out of those five – the 1977 regional in Columbia.
“There’s not too much difference between the two teams,” first-year USC coach Chad Holbrook said of USC and North Carolina. “Ultimately, we didn’t do enough to win the two games that they won. It’ll haunt me for a long time. It’s a difficult day for us today, but we’ll look back on it as a darn good year and there’s a lot to be proud of.
“It was a great experience for me, and we’ll try to build upon this experience and put ourselves in position to get to this point next year. I’m proud of my team and I’ll be more proud of them (with) the more separation I can get from this feeling I’ve got right now. There’s no way anybody faced more adversity than we faced throughout the course of the year from an injury standpoint. They kept their head above water. We didn’t always play great, but we always played hard.
“Today stinks, but I’m a big boy, and I’ve got two national championship rings. I’m OK. But I hate it for those kids that don’t have one. That’s the part that hurts right now. As far as the year goes, this is going to sound kind of arrogant, but it’s just the truth: The expectation when you coach at South Carolina and you play at South Carolina is to finish the year in Omaha. As long as I’m coaching, that’s going to be the expectation. And while, in 63 games, we did a lot of good, we fell short of our main goal. That’s going to burn me for a while.”
Some other notes from the final game of USC’s season …
** One reason North Carolina won? The Tar Heels did not strike out at all Tuesday. It was the first time all season that USC’s pitchers hadn’t struck out a batter.
Though North Carolina had six hits, it put pressure on USC’s defense, especially in the sixth inning, when a fly ball to centerfield, and Skye Bolt tagging up from first, resulted in a throwing error to second base by first baseman Kyle Martin. The tying run scored on the play.
“I felt like the game was there for us to win and we did some uncharacteristically … well, we didn’t make some plays that we normally make and do some things that we normally do,” Holbrook said. “We kind of opened the gates for them a little bit. Sometimes things don’t necessarily go your way, but you also have to try to make your own breaks and make some plays. We didn’t make the plays right there in the sixth when it counted.”
USC had three errors in each super regional game. Two in Game 1 led directly to two runs. One in Game 3 led directly to a run. USC lost Game 1 by a run and Game 3 by a run.
“It’s just unfortunate it happened at this time of year,” Holbrook said. “Sometimes you can stem the tide a little bit when you make a couple errors in the middle of the week (against non-conference opponents) or even on the weekend sometimes in the league, and it’s not as magnified. In postseason play, when you’re playing a great team, every little mistake is magnified. We made our fair share this weekend. It’s disappointing.
“We lost two games and both games were there for us to win. We dropped a routine fly ball in Game 1 (left fielder Graham Saiko) and didn’t throw the ball to the cut-off man (right fielder Connor Bright). Just simple stuff. It’s disappointing, especially when the games are so important. But at the same time, we’ve played good defense all year long. We probably wouldn’t be sitting up here right now with a chance to play for a trip to Omaha if we hadn’t played great defense. It just came back and got us this weekend.
“You’ve got to give North Carolina credit, too. They put the ball in play. They faced (Adam) Westmoreland, Webb and (Jack) Wynkoop today and didn’t have one strikeout. They put the ball in play and put pressure on you. They forced a couple of those errors.”
As for Martin’s throwing error, Holbrook said, “We defended the ball the way it was supposed to be defended. Tanner (English) threw the ball right to the cut-off man. Make two clean throws, and he’s out. But Kyle was making a throw that he’s not accustomed to making. Kudos to North Carolina for putting him in that spot. It was a good play.
“I wasn’t surprised (Bolt tagged up). They tag up at first all the time. Tanner did the right thing. We told him that was going to take place, and just throw the ball to the cut-off man. You make two good throws, they’re out. You’ve got to make two good throws. That’s why you see coaches put on first-and-third plays and try to break from third to home (on a fly ball to the outfield) and make them throw two strikes. We threw one strike. And it cost us dearly.
“Kyle was trying to make a play, too. He saved us three or four runs in Game 1 with his defense. He was just trying to make a play. It just happened at a bad time for him, and I hate it for him. We tried to defend the play the right way. We just didn’t throw a strike.”
** North Carolina is clearly a resilient team. That has been plenty evident recently, as the Tar Heels battled back to beat Clemson and North Carolina State in the ACC tournament, Florida Atlantic in the NCAA regional and USC twice in this super regional.
That’s why USC’s players didn’t get too excited after North Carolina center fielder Chaz Frank dropped a ball in the fifth that would have ended the inning but instead scored two USC runs, putting the Gamecocks up 3-2.
“We definitely got a little excited down there in the bullpen (and thought) maybe that’s the break we needed,” said Webb. “But at the same time, North Carolina is a great team and you knew they weren’t going to go away quietly. We knew we still had our work cut out for us.”
Setup reliever Westmoreland: “You get excited when something like that goes your way, but we know from watching them, they’re never going to quit.”
English: “The game is never over until the last out is made, especially with a team like North Carolina. I figured coming into today that it was going to be a knife fight and it was just going to be back and forth all day.”
** USC couldn’t get a couple of sac bunt opportunities down Tuesday, which makes a difference in a one-run game. In the first inning, USC had first and second with no outs. Holbrook had Joey Pankake bunt, but it went back to the pitcher, who got the lead-off man at third. USC got no runs in the inning.
The same thing happened in the sixth, when USC extended its lead to 4-2 with a run, but could have had more. Again, USC had first and second with no outs. Connor Bright bunted toward first base – when he should have bunted toward third – and North Carolina again got the lead runner at third base on a force out.
As for the first bunt, Holbrook explained it by saying, “I wanted to score first today and I told myself that if we get the first two guys on, we’re bunting. Joey had the right mindset to bunt. We had two bad bunts today that ended up costing us dearly. Everything is magnified at this stage. When you lose by one run and you don’t get a bunt down, it comes back to get you.”
Of Bright’s bunt, Holbrook said, “Connor, bless his heart, he bunted down the wrong line. I don’t know how many times we pound it in their heads: When there’s a runner on second base, you bunt the ball down the third base line. For some reason, pressure or uncomfortable, I don’t know, he just wanted to get the bunt down. Maybe the pitch was outside and he just went with it. We keep remembering that we’re coaching college kids, amateur kids that are trying so damn hard to do everything they can to help their team win. I won’t lose sight of that.”
** USC loses only third baseman Chase Vergason, first baseman LB Dantzler (though Martin stepped in at first base in the NCAA tournament and Dantzler was the designated hitter), starting pitcher Nolan Belcher (who had a strong senior season) and its top two relievers – Westmoreland Webb. Even though Dantzler led USC with a .322 batting average (Vergason was last among regulars on the team with .262), the loss of Belcher, Westmoreland and Webb looms largest.
Every other significant contributor is expected back for next season, as Celek was the only USC junior who was drafted. Saiko, the left fielder who hit .263, was not picked, though he could work his way into the draft next season.
Next year’s junior class could have significant departures – shortstop Joey Pankake, centerfielder Tanner English, catcher Grayson Greiner and pitcher Jordan Montgomery. USC will bring back two rising stars who contributed significantly as freshmen this season: second baseman Max Schrock and starting pitcher Jack Wynkoop.
“We dodged the draft (this year) and we got some good players coming in here and we’re returning some good players,” Holbrook said. “I expect to be in this spot next year. That’s just the expectation at South Carolina. And hopefully we can win one more game or score two more runs next year.”
But for now, the summer begins for these Gamecocks, who leave behind plenty of memories.
“It’s been a great four years here,” Webb said. “To this point, it’s definitely the highlight of my life and I’ll cherish the memories for a long time.”