If South Carolina wasn’t already in Florida’s head after last year’s College World Series championship series, the Gamecocks are certainly in the Gators heads now.
After making a handful of spectacular plays to beat the Gators for a national title a year ago, coupled with a good bit of luck and some Florida miscues, the Gamecocks did the exact same thing again in the opener in Omaha in a 7-3 win that sent the Gators spiraling down into the loser’s bracket.
Florida got out to a good start, taking a 2-0 lead in the third inning courtesy of a two-run double by Preston Tucker. But South Carolina roared right back with a five-run fifth inning to take down the tournament’s top overall seed.
“They had the big inning, and normally in this game the winning team will score more runs in one inning than the losing team will all night,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “That was obviously the case tonight.”
Things seemed to be going a different direction than last year’s outing in Omaha went against left-hander Michael Roth.
The Gators were able to jump on him early to make him pitch from behind staring down a 2-0 deficit. They worked through a lot of pitches in the early inning.
But a costly decision to leave Brian Johnson on the mound for the fifth inning after he had already given up four hits and a lot of early contact. Johnson gave up a leadoff double and a single to start the fifth inning and never recovered.
O’Sullivan left him in after he gave up the back-to-back hits to start the inning, and Johnson walked the next batter on four pitches. Five pitches later, South Carolina designated hitter Erik Payne blasted a three-run triple to the gap in right center field to give the Gamecocks a 3-2 lead.
Still, Johnson stayed in the game with a runner on third and no outs.
The two-time defending national champs made O’Sullivan pay for the decision, as LB Dantzler blasted the second pitch of the at-bat over Daniel Pigott’s head in center for another RBI. Florida went to the bullpen, which gave up another run before finally closing the door with Florida trailing 5-2.
“It’s a nine-inning ballgame, we had a long way to go (after taking the 2-0 lead),” O’Sullivan said. “It was good that we got out to a 2-0 lead, but once again, credit South Carolina.”
Florida managed to scratch out a run on a Mike Zunino sac fly in the bottom half of the fifth to cut the lead to 5-3. But Roth (W 8-1, 2.60 ERA) settled in and got into a groove, pitching 6.1 innings before handing the game over to the bullpen.
Johnson (L 8-5, 4.21 ERA) had a chance to keep himself from picking up the loss in the bottom of the fifth inning with a runner on second and two outs trailing 5-3. But he grounded out to second to end one of Florida’s last real threats of the night.
When Roth sat down the Gators in order in the bottom of the sixth inning, things seemed all but over for Florida.
Just like last year, things came unglued down the stretch. Florida ran into trouble in the ninth inning with Keenan Kish on the mound. A wild pitch from Kish put a runner on third, and O’Sullivan lifted him for Steven Rodriguez.
Rodriguez’s first pitch was down in the dirt and got by Zunino, allowing the runner to score from third. Later in the inning, an throwing error by Vickash Ramjit at first base allowed another run to score to up the lead to 7-3.
“I just think South Carolina beat us in every phase of the game today,” O’Sullivan said. “They outpitched us, they obviously outhit us and they played better defense. A really well-played game by South Carolina, obviously not one of our best. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due, South Carolina just outplayed us today, simple as that.”
Closer Matt Price earned the save for USC, breaking the SEC record for career saves with his 42nd in a Gamecocks uniform.
South Carolina’s 22nd consecutive win in the NCAA Tournament – and third at Florida’s expense during that stretch – sent the Gators tumbling to the loser’s bracket.
Florida would have to win four straight games to make it back to the College World Series championship series after losing the opener, a feat only six teams have managed to do since 1988.
The Gators will begin that uphill climb on Monday at 5 p.m. ET with a game against Kent State. The Golden Flashes lost to Arkansas 8-1 in the first game Saturday evening. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
“We’re looking forward to coming back on Monday,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got enough pitching to get through this tournament. Obviously we’ll just take it one game at a time and see what happens.”
Florida will throw ace junior right-hander Hudson Randall (9-2, 2.61 ERA) against Kent State.