Pitching, defense carried Gamecocks to CWS title

Jun 30, 2010 - 8:46 PM By ERIC OLSON AP Sports Writer

OMAHA, Neb.(AP) -- It was said often during the College World Series that it isn't necessarily the best team that wins the national championship but the team that plays the best baseball.

That rings especially true to Ray Tanner, who described his South Carolina Gamecocks as a good but not great team even after they swept UCLA in the finals.

"We've been a really, really special baseball team that approached it the right way and found a way to win and never gave in, never gave up," Tanner said. "And it was real. It wasn't just talk. And when we did have some adversity, they flushed it rather quickly and got back up."

The Gamecocks (54-16) won their first national championship in a men's sport Tuesday with their 2-1, 11-inning victory. Whit Merrifield's RBI single decided the final CWS game to be played at Rosenblatt Stadium. The event moves from Rosenblatt, the home of the CWS since 1950, to a new downtown stadium next year.

South Carolina clearly wasn't as dominant as champions such as the Southern California teams of the 1970s, the 1983 Texas Longhorns or the LSU Tigers of the 1990s.

The Gamecocks were Southeastern Conference runners-up, and they went two games and out at the SEC tournament. They trailed all three of their regional games and had to win a pair of one-run games against Coastal Carolina in the super regional.

Relative to other teams in the offensive-fueled college game, the Gamecocks' numbers were modest. Their .300 team average ranked 173rd out of 292 Division I teams. They were 125th in scoring. Though they were 12th in home runs, with 97, the most by one player were Jackie Bradley's 13.

Bradley's team-leading .368 average didn't even rank among the top 250, and his 60 RBIs were 167th. But Bradley, the Most Outstanding Player in Omaha, had a CWS-high nine RBIs in seven games, hit .345 (10 for 29) and extended his hitting streak to 22 games before he went 0 for 5 on Tuesday night.

South Carolina batted .284 in Omaha, the lowest average by a national champion since Oregon State hit .281 in 2006.

"I don't want to act like we can't hit at all," Tanner said. "There were times when we had trouble scoring runs, but really there was never a time that we didn't pitch and play defense throughout the entire season."

Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson turned in solid starts and Matt Price was tough out of the bullpen, but it was the improbable contribution from career short reliever Michael Roth that helped make South Carolina the first team to win six straight games in a single CWS and go 3-1 in one-run games.

South Carolina pitchers combined for a 2.15 ERA at the CWS with 57 strikeouts and 12 walks, and they held opponents to a .191 batting average. The Gamecocks never gave up more than four runs in a game.

Before the CWS, Roth was a situational reliever who was brought in to face left-handed batters in the late innings. He had logged more than three innings just three times in 51 career appearances before he pitched a complete-game three-hitter in a 5-1 win over Clemson on Friday.

Tanner gave Roth the ball again Tuesday, and he went five innings and gave up one run.

"I was planning on going nine innings again," Roth said with a smile. "You know, never would I have ever thought that I was going to start a game here in Omaha. I'm honored that they called upon me. It's a wonderful feeling to be a starting pitcher of the final game."

Roth went 1-0 with a 1.10 ERA in four CWS appearances, allowing just nine hits over 16 1-3 innings and holding opponents to a .167 batting average.

He threw 218 pitches in his four outings in Omaha after throwing a total of 338 pitches heading into the CWS.

Defensively, South Carolina led all CWS teams with a .979 fielding percentage and turned seven double plays.

South Carolina figures to return outfielders Evan Marzilli and Bradley but could lose Merrifield, who was drafted in the ninth round by Kansas City. First baseman Christian Walker, third baseman Adrian Morales and second baseman Scott Wingo are expected back.

The pitching staff will take a hit, though. Cooper was a senior, and Dyson has said he plans to sign with Toronto, which drafted him in the fourth round. Tyler Webb, who can start or relieve, will come back along with Roth.

After winning the last CWS at Rosenblatt, Tanner knows it'll be hard to get back to Omaha to help break in the new TD Ameritrade Park.

"It's so hard to get in this position, especially with the landscape of college baseball right now," he said. "The state of South Carolina and the Southeast, so many good programs and so many athletic directors who care. It's a sport of emphasis and it's incredible. You have to have a lot of things happen for you and you have to have the right kind of people around you.

"But it's not impossible to be sitting where we are. But the odds are against you being here."

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