Gamecocks seeking 4th consecutive CWS trip
South Carolina’s baseball team finds itself in a familiar situation this week. The Gamecocks are two victories away from advancing to the College World Series for a school-record fourth consecutive year. South Carolina made the trip to Omaha from 2002-04 and has been to the CWS for the last three seasons, winning two national titles and playing for a third. USC’s opponent is the North Carolina Tar Heels, winners of the Chapel Hill Regional and the tournament’s overall #1 seed. Here’s how the weekend matchup breaks down:
South Carolina made it through the Columbia Regional unscathed, with a win over Saint Louis and two victories against Liberty. USC’s starting pitching was impressive, as the Gamecocks got strong starts from Nolan Belcher, Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop. Belcher allowed just one run against Saint Louis and Montgomery struck out a career-high 11 batters versus Liberty. At the plate, USC had one of its most impressive weekends of the year, pounding out 32 runs and 39 hits.
The biggest surprise of the regional was the play of Gamecock first baseman Kyle Martin. The sophomore, who had only started 12 games coming into the weekend and was put in the lineup for his glove, hit .500 with six RBIs and was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Martin played error-free defense in the three games and was part of a USC infield that committed just two errors in 27 innings. Head coach Chad Holbrook said after the regional that he has not decided whether Martin will remain at first base this weekend, or if normal starter L.B. Dantzler will reclaim the job.
South Carolina’s two bullpen stars, Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb, had another outstanding weekend. Westmoreland made his first career appearance in the NCAA Tournament and struck out three in 2 1/3 innings in the regional-clinching win over Liberty. Webb picked up a win against Saint Louis and recorded his 17th save of the season in USC’s rematch against the Flames. Colby Holmes, another bullpen mainstay, earned the win in USC’s 6-4 victory versus Liberty.
The Gamecocks will be the underdog in Chapel Hill, a role that USC is not accustomed to playing. Holbrook said that the matchup with the Tar Heels means that the Gamecocks “have nothing to lose.” South Carolina was overpowering in the regional, but USC will have to elevate its game against North Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled at times this season against top-notch competition. USC is 3-7 this year against teams that have advanced to the Super Regionals.
North Carolina won the ACC Tournament and earned the NCAA Tournament’s #1 overall seed. The Tar Heels defeated Canisius and Towson in the regional before losing to Florida Atlantic to set up a winner-take-all battle on Monday night. UNC prevailed 12-11 in 13 innings to move on to the Super Regionals. The Tar Heels have won eight of their last nine games and have been ranked in the top-five all season. North Carolina is led by head coach Mike Fox, who has taken UNC to seven Super Regionals in 15 seasons.
The Tar Heels are led at the plate by first baseman Cody Stubbs and designated hitter Landon Lassiter, both of whom are hitting over .350 for the season. Stubbs and Lassiter each recorded four hits in UNC’s win over Florida Atlantic. Stubbs had the game-winning single in the 13th inning that clinched the regional for the Tar Heels. North Carolina hits .310 as a team and seven of their starters are batting over .300.
UNC’s starting pitching rotation enters the Super Regional with a combined record of 23-4. North Carolina’s staff is led by Kent Emmanuel, the ACC’s Pitcher of the Year. Emmanuel owns an 11-3 and has tossed 120 innings for the Heels this season. The Tar Heels also have talent in the bullpen. UNC’s closer, Trent Thornton, has eight saves and a 1.17 ERA.
Catcher — Advantage: USC
Grayson Greiner has gunned down base runners all season long. He will face his toughest test this weekend. The Tar Heels have swiped 85 bags this year, while the Gamecocks have only attempted 83 steals all season.
First Base — Advantage: UNC
Kyle Martin had a monster weekend, but Cody Stubbs is batting .372 with 24 doubles on the year.
Second Base — Advantage: USC
Max Schrock, a native of Chapel Hill, has been South Carolina’s most impressive freshman this season.
Third Base — Advantage: UNC
The Tar Heels have one of college baseball’s best players at the hot corner. Colin Moran has been named a finalist for the Golden Spike Award, given to the nation’s top amateur baseball player.
Shortstop — Advantage: Tie
Joey Pankake has put up great numbers at the plate and his defensive play has improved over the year. North Carolina’s Michael Russell has been a steady performer all season.
Left field — Advantage: USC
Graham Saiko played his best baseball of the year this weekend and has been called one of USC’s most intelligent players by Holbrook.
Center field — Advantage: UNC
Tanner English had a great performance in the regional, but the sophomore has a strained oblique that might hinder his offensive output.
Right field — Advantage: UNC
Connor Bright has the potential to put up big numbers at the plate, but has been a streaky hitter. The Tar Heels’ Skye Bolt is batting .341 this season.
Designated Hitter — Advantage: USC
Landon Lassiter has North Carolina’s second-highest batting average, but L.B. Dantzler is a bigger deep-ball threat.
Pitching — Advantage: UNC
South Carolina’s middle relievers have had their struggles this season. Only Westmoreland and Webb have been consistent performers out of the bullpen. UNC’s starters have been dominant and the Tar Heel pitchers have been able to throw effectively on short rest.