Michael Roth was counting down the minutes until his July 1 flight for Spain, via Atlanta, left the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. Fumbling with his phone, the University of South Carolina junior pitcher looked up to see several children, and a couple of adults, standing in front of him.
They were smiling. They wanted autographs. They wanted pictures with him.
Athletes are always asked at what point a big sports moment hits them after the fact. For Roth, that was the moment. That was when it registered that, three days earlier in Nebraska, the Gamecocks had again won a national baseball championship.
It took the school more than a century to win its first men’s national championship. The second NCAA title required all of 364 days to capture. “You kind of look back and go, ‘How the heck did we do that? How did we get that done?’” says Roth, an All-American in his first year as a starting pitcher, who had an SEC high in wins (14) and league low in earned-run average (1.06). “It’s just weird thinking we did it twice.”
All right, so maybe it’s still setting in a bit.
It’s forgivable, what Roth was feeling. His coach, Ray Tanner, says he would need “a few days” to grasp the most recent championship. “It’s really difficult to put into words what we’ve experienced,” Tanner says, dumbfounded, in the moments after the win.
At best, what the Gamecocks did in the 2011 College World Series caused head scratching around the country. For true fans of the team, it might have shaved years off lives, or at least induced an ulcer or two.
TD Ameritrade Park, home of the 2011 College World Series
It was not a surprise South Carolina won. The Gamecocks were the 2010 champs. They arrived with 50 victories. They were the NCAA Tournament’s No. 4 overall seed, when they were unseeded champions – indeed, upset winners – in 2010.
No, it was not a surprise South Carolina won in 2011. It was a surprise how South Carolina won. It became the first team to go undefeated in the postseason since 2001. But it was anything but simple. “It may seem like it was easy,” Roth says, “but you have to have a lot of stuff go your way. It’s still a tough road, no matter what.”
Seemingly night after night, the Gamecocks would get themselves into impossible, you-just-can’t-win predicaments. And, yet, they would find a way to come through the fire without even a blemish.
The two extra-inning victories in Omaha will be among the most remembered games in the history of the program. On June 24 against Virginia, pitcher Matt Price entered in the eighth inning – and he was still on the mound in the 13th, 95 pitches and several jams later. The Cavaliers, the top seed in the tournament, loaded the bases against Price in the 10th, 12th and 13th innings. And they didn’t score.
In the 13th, Virginia had runners on every base with none out. Price struck out the team’s toughest hitter and then got a line-drive double play to end the inning. Two throwing errors brought home Adam Matthews with the winning run in the bottom of the 13th.
What’s new? The Gamecocks had two extra-inning walk-off wins in the 2010 event. The Virginia victory was the second walk-off of 2011, paired with Scott Wingo’s ninth-inning hit in the CWS opener against Texas A&M.
Somehow, the next game – and win – managed to top that one. Against Florida in the finals, the Gamecocks looked hopeless against Gators starter Hudson Randall, until Wingo poked a single up the middle in the eighth inning to tie the game at one.
The game remained tied until the 11th, despite the fact that – again – a team had the bases loaded against the Gamecocks with none out. This time, John Taylor extricated the Gamecocks from disaster when a single Florida run in the ninth would have signaled the end of the game – and a 1-0 Florida lead in the best-of-three series.
With the infield drawn in, the first ground ball was hit sharply to Wingo at second. He spun and fired home. Well, wide of home. Catcher Robert Beary picked the ball up on a short hop, extremely difficult to do with a catcher’s mitt, to get the first out.
Robert Beary tags out Florida’s Cody Dent before he reaches home plate, averting a Florida win in the first game of the 2011 championship series.
The second ground ball was hit even harder to Wingo. He came home with a better throw, and Beary had enough time to sling the ball to first base for a most unconventional 4-2-3 double play. Florida had the game all but wrapped up, but it did not score.
Phew. And phew.
A base hit in the 10th inning by Florida catcher Mike Zunino, the SEC’s player of the year, looked as if it would surely score the winning run from second base. Cody Dent rounded third, headed home – and was met by the baseball.
Despite a modest arm, left fielder Jake Williams zipped a perfect strike to Beary, who applied the tag two steps before Dent reached the plate.
“That’s the best throw I’ve seen him make since I’ve known him,” Tanner says.
Phew, phew and phew.
The escapes paved the way for another weird finish. Christian Walker scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th when he stole second base and throwing errors by Zunino and Florida’s center fielder allowed him to get home.
Walker was playing – and had two hits – despite a broken bone in his left hand.
After taking a breath, or trying to, the Gamecocks found themselves one victory from a second consecutive national title.
Pitching Wins Championships
Michael Roth pitched 7 1/3 innings to win the final game in the 2011 CWS.
Winning the last one was easy. Compared to all of the team’s games requiring a defibrillator for viewing, the Gamecocks made light work of the Gators in the second game of the finals. They scored three times in the third and rode Roth, who went 7 2/3 innings and allowed just two earned runs despite making his third start of the CWS and second in five days.
Shortstop Peter Mooney tacked on the exclamation point with a sixth-inning home run – the only one USC hit in its five CWS games at the large, new ballpark.
But that figures. The 2010 championship was all about pitching, with Mark Calvi’s staff allowing just 16 runs in six games (2.17 ERA). The 2011 championship was more of the same – but, somehow, better.
In Jerry Meyers’ first season back as pitching coach, the Gamecocks finished with a 2.45 ERA – and a 0.88 ERA in five College World Series games. The staff featured an All-American at the front end of the rotation, Roth, and one at its back end, Price. Price, the redshirt sophomore, saved 20 games and won seven more. He finished with a 1.83 ERA, and half of his 12 earned runs were allowed in one shaky outing in March.
Then there was Taylor, who did receive one second-team All-America nod. Taylor was used sporadically in 2010, but he was as close as you’ll see to an everyday pitcher in 2011. Taylor was in 50 of USC’s 69 games, one appearance shy of the NCAA single-season record.
Taylor won eight games and a 1.14 ERA in 71 1/3 innings.
Taylor and Price, close as they might have gotten at times to danger, did not allow a run in Omaha in 16 2/3 innings. “I mean,” Wingo says, succinctly, “they just make pitches.”
They did, sure, but there were guys such as Mooney and Wingo making plays behind the pitchers. The defense seemed to save its best for the very end. Then again, that applied to a lot of areas of the team.
Wingo was another. The Mauldin native blossomed as a senior, going from offensive afterthought to the College World Series’ Most Outstanding Player for his all-around performance.
“We were good at a time of the year when you have to be,” Tanner says. “We didn’t give up a whole lot of runs, we played great defense and had some timely hitting. We were able to survive.”
The Real Battle
That’s an interesting word choice, considering the Gamecocks have drawn the past two seasons from stories of those trying to survive brushes with cancer.
A year ago, 7-year-old Bishopville native Bayler Teal lost his fight with the disease during the most dramatic game of the 2010 season, in which USC was down to its final strike trailing by a run in the 12th inning in the CWS. The team played in his memory, and his grief-stricken parents flew to Omaha to celebrate his life. Emotional, they helped hoist the national championship trophy.
A companion story in 2010, and one that emerged with verve in 2011, was that of Charlie Peters. Tanner originally met Peters when the team was in Omaha in 2003. Peters was in a children’s hospital, having been diagnosed earlier that year with Burkitt’s lymphoma.
Peters improved dramatically by the time the Gamecocks returned in 2004. He welcomed the team back in 2010 and again in 2011, as a 13-year-old who is now a ballplayer himself.
For the final four games of the tournament, Tanner stationed Peters in the dugout as one of the team’s batboys.
Charlie Peters, one of USC’s batboys in the 2011 CWS
The day of the championship game against Florida, Tanner was stressed when he arrived at the ballpark. A visit with Peters in the dugout, though, and Tanner was at ease. “We chatted, just me and Charlie,” Tanner says. “It put it in perspective for me. We’re playing a game. Sometimes we feel like there’s nothing worse in the world than a loss, but it’s really not that big of a deal when you get right down to it. Perspective is an important thing.”
So is the sort of hope that watching Peters walk, talk – and smile – provides. “I think hope is one of the true, true reasons for existence,” says his mom, Jenny. “For some reason, God wanted him to still be here. He beat the odds. He cheated death. Charlie is a sign of hope.”
One of USC’s mantra’s in the College World Series was “battle.” Bayler and Charlie first taught the Gamecocks how to battle.
Playing Like Champs
The Peters story as an example, there was more to this team than anything that can be observed in a box score – just the same as it was with the 2010 bunch. The core of the team returned from the initial title run, and that nucleus was vital for myriad reasons.
The Gamecocks, one opposing coach noted during the NCAA Tournament, played with the swagger of a champion all year in 2011. Confidence was a huge component in what the team did to defend its title. It knew it had the ability to win big – because it had already. “We perform on a big stage,” says third baseman Adrian Morales, the team’s tough-guy leader. “We perform under pressure. We don’t panic.”
With the light-hearted Roth around, the team also knew how to stay loose. Down late in one of the CWS games, the players, Roth included, wore their sunglasses and hats upside down. During a tense, late-game moment against then-No. 1 Vanderbilt in the regular-season, several relievers were doing the Rockettes’ routine in the bullpen.
USC won each of those games. And a whole bunch more.
The 2011 team adopted Tanner’s long-held mantra “win, anyway” more than his other squads. South Carolina won against teams – including Florida – that were, in theory, more talented. It won when Clemson’s coach accused it of warming bats to increase power. It won when preseason All-American Jackie Bradley, Jr. went down with an injury that caused him to miss two months. Others missed significant time, too.
It won and won and won, anyway. Fifty-five victories and 14 losses later, the Gamecocks were again the only team to win their final game. “To go back to back, and win another national championship,” Wingo says, “it’s just incredible.”
South Carolina currently owns a 16-game winning streak in the NCAA Tournament, the longest of any team in college baseball history. “They say history happens here,” Roth says of Omaha, “and it’s pretty special to be part of history.”
Sequels are generally regarded as letdowns. This one was not. “Everything about it was perfect,” says Walker, a sophomore. “Maybe we can do it again next year.”
Scott Wingo receives the 2011 CWS Most Oustanding Player Award.