CHAMPIONS: Gamecocks win College World Series
Merrifield's hit gives USC first-ever men's national championship
OMAHA, Neb. — South Carolina coach Ray Tanner sat there, stunned. There wasn't much the veteran coach could say.
"It's not usual that I'm at a loss for words, but ... I've never had the opportunity to sit in this position before," Tanner said.
"You start in February with 300 teams and you get a chance to go to postseason, and maybe to a Super Regional, and then you have things go right for you and you go to Omaha. And you get to play in the national championship series, and you're the last team standing."
Whit Merrifield's RBI single in the bottom of the 11th capped another late-inning comeback for USC and catapulted the Gamecocks to a series victory in the National Championship over UCLA, the school's first national title in a men's sport.
"I worked the count in my favor and got a fastball," Merrifield said. "Even though it was kind of down, I got the barrel on it, and it finally went the other way and shot it into the gap. And it fell for me. And it was a great feeling."
It concluded a miraculous season for Tanner and USC (54-16), who battled from deficits through much of the year. But the team that lost four of its first 10 games and four of its last five to end the regular season and conference tournament hoisted the national championship trophy— the first team to accomplish such a feat in the sport's 118 years of competition.
"We trailed in all three regional games, we trailed in Super Regional games, we were one pitch away from not being here today. It's just a great run," Tanner said. "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."
Trailing UCLA (51-17) by a run in the eighth with the tying run standing on second, UCLA first baseman Dean Espy botched a Bobby Haney ground ball, bringing around the tying run and keeping the Gamecocks alive.
That set the stage for closer Matt Price, who battled back from loading the bases to strike out leadoff hitter Niko Gallego on three pitches to end the inning.
After the teams traded scoreless frames in the 10th, nine-hole hitter Scott Wingo forced a leadoff walk to begin the bottom half of the 11th before advancing into scoring position on a wild pitch. After Evan Marzilli moved him to third, Merrifield laced the biggest hit of his career into right field, sending the USC fans in attendance into a frenzy.
"We play like this all year. And we battle," Price said. "And we come out in big games and pitching is unbelievable."
South Carolina trailed after the seventh inning in each round of the tournament. They trailed against Bucknell. They trailed on the road at Coastal Carolina. They were down to their final strike of the season against Oklahoma. And they trailed to UCLA in the championship.
And yet, they got it done.
"These guys ... they have great resolve." Tanner said. "They have great respect for the game ... They take ownership. They care about each other. They pick each other up."
Making the run more improbable was USC's resolve to battle out of the loser's bracket. After falling to Oklahoma in the opening round, Carolina became the only team in the history of the CWS to win six consecutive games on its way to the title.
"I know this: When you have anxiety and tension, you can't perform," Tanner said. "And I think my teams have been that way at times because of me. And I try not to be that way anymore. These guys have been great for me. And they approach the game every day the right way. We didn't win them all, but we won a large majority of them."
As a result, the Gamecocks not only closed out their season with a victory, but Rosenblatt Stadium with a victory. The home of the College World Series since 1950, the contest will be held in a new facility next season.
That proved special to Tanner and Merrifield, who capped Rosenblatt's historical run in his last "at-blatt."
"To be able to survive and win the last game is really incredible," Tanner said. "I know the new stadium will be very special and a great facility. But this is history. And we'll be a part of the College World Series and Rosenblatt for a long, long time."
It was a stunning finish to the game, as Savage elected to pitch to Merrifield and not load the bases in order to force a double play. With Merrifield standing at the plate and only one down, the Bruins were forced to pitch to either him or CWS MVP Jackie Bradley, Jr. The matchup could have called for loading the bases, as right-handed reliever Dan Klein would have faced the right-handed hitting Christian Walker, instead of the lefty Bradley.
They elected to go with the first option.
"I was a little surprised that they didn't walk me and Jackie to load the bases and maybe force a doubleplay ball," Merrifield said. "But, you know, when I saw the catcher squat down, I knew I had something to prove. They wanted to get me out."
It failed. And as a result, allowed South Carolina to leave Omaha as the No. 1 team in college baseball.
"It's so hard to get in this position, especially with the landscape of college baseball right now," Tanner said. "The state of South Carolina and the Southeast, [there are] so many good programs and so many athletic directors who care. It's a sport of emphasis and it's incredible.
"I'm ecstatic to be a part of this program and winning the national championship."