(WSPA) – The sports team at WSPA has created a ‘Top 10 Moments in South Carolina Athletics’ countdown. Starting Tuesday April 14, we will be revealing portions of the list nightly on 7 News and online at wspa.com leading up to the top moment in Gamecocks history. Be sure to follow along as we break down these monumental achievements featuring interviews with Phil Kornblut of SportsTalk Radio Network.
#1: 2010 College World Series Championship
In 2010, South Carolina Gamecocks baseball had finally gotten over the hump, giving the school its first national title in a men’s sport. For years, if not decades, the Gamecocks had been building up to a national championship, but had fallen short in Omaha. At the start of the new decade, though, USC recorded the final World Series win at Rosenblatt Stadium and launched an impressive run.
Prior to 2010, Gamecock baseball was consistently in the conversation to compete for a national championship. South Carolina regularly won 40-plus games a season, but couldn’t quite reach the pinnacle.
“Gamecock baseball had really been the crown jewel of the University of South Carolina sports,” said Phil Kornblut of SportsTalk Radio Network, who’s covered SC Athletics for over thirty years. “The one thing you could count on was Gamecock baseball over all those years. They just weren’t getting out of regionals or super regionals.”
Head coach Ray Tanner rebuilt the Gameocks winning legacy, reaching at least 40 victories in each of the previous 10 seasons, including three straight trips to Omaha beginning in 2002, when USC finished as the College World Series runner-up with a loss to Texas in the final year the CWS used a format with a winner-take-all championship game.
“He did a great job of building and sustaining, because no sport has a turnover of a roster like baseball does,” said Kornblut.
From 2005 to 2009, USC exited the postseason in the regional or super regional, but in 2010 they made the push to greatness, although it followed a mediocre start to the season.
USC opened the campaign at 5-4, including series losses to East Carolina and Clemson. But after a loss to the Tigers, the Gamecocks rattled off 13 consecutive victories, pushing their record to 18-4.
South Carolina was paced by some great hitters in 2010, scoring 499 runs while allowing just 285. Center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. was the star at the plate with a team-high.368 batting average, a team-high 60 RBI, and tied for the team lead in home runs with 13. The team batted .300, with Bradley, Brady Thomas, Christian Walker, White Merrifield, and Adam Matthews exceeding that mark.
The pitching can’t get swept by the wayside, however.
Blake Cooper posted an impressive 2.76 ERA on his way to a 13-2 record as the Gamecocks’ ace. Sam Dyson was 6-5, and the bullpen was stacked. With relievers in Michael Roth, Jose Mata, and closer Matt Price, once the USC took a lead into the late innings, they rarely surrendered it. In fact, they were 41-1 when leading after the sixth inning.
By the end of the regular season, South Carolina was 43-13, going 21-9 in SEC play. They headed into the conference tournament as a three-seed, but struggled at the plate, scoring just one run in two games. They were eliminated in the first round, although a trip to the regionals was right around the corner.
Regionals (June 4-13)
South Carolina grabbed a one seed going into the Columbia Regional at Founders Park. And their bats were clicking early. USC tallied 14 hits, scoring nine runs against Bucknell in the opening round, amounting to a 9-5 victory. They followed it up with another nine-run outing against The Citadel, winning 9-4.
Next up was Virginia Tech, a two-seed, with a trip to the super regional on the line. The Hokies jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first, but Mata worked 4.1 innings of scoreless relief and the Gamecocks didn’t allow another run. After erasing the early deficit, a six-run sixth inning pushed South Carolina to a 10-2 win.
USC then traveled to Myrtle Beach to take on Coastal Carolina in the super regional. The Chanticleers were two games removed from tying a postseason-high 25-run output against Stony Brook. But the opening game in the best-of-three super regional was a much tighter, low-scoring contest. USC led 4-2 after two innings, and then the pitching and defense kicked in. Coastal Carolina scored just one more run the rest of the way and the Gamecocks held on for a 4-3 win. And after another one-run win in game two,10-9, they were headed back to Omaha.
College World Series (Omaha, Nebraska: June 19-29)
In game one versus Oklahoma, a game delayed several hours at the start due to rain, South Carolina dug itself an early hole. Despite registering seven hits to the Gamecocks’ nine, the Sooners posted four runs, beating USC 4-3 in the opening round of the double elimination format. One more loss and they would be heading home to Columbia.
“Now, they gotta play their way up through the losers bracket, which is very difficult, it’s very taxing,” said Kornblut.
The Gamecocks responded with a convincing win over Arizona State two days later. Their bats exploded as they posted eight runs in the second frame. Bradley’s four RBI led South Carolina to an 11-4 win over the Sun Devils.
USC was paired up with Oklahoma once again in a game that, not surprisingly, went down to the wire. It took 12 innings for the game to be decided. South Carolina came out on top 3-2, after trailing 2-1 going into the final frame. That win sent them into the semifinals to take on a familiar foe and arch-rival, Clemson.
USC smothered the Clemson attack from the start behind an incredible performance by an unlikely starting pitcher Michael Roth, who’d performed only in relief up to that point in the season. Roth not only stepped up in the moment but went the distance in tossing a three-hitter, allowing just one run. The Gamecocks, on the other hand, scored a run in each of the first four innings en route to a 5-1 win.
The teams met the following night in a winner-take-all showdown to get to the CWS championship series, a similar scenario to what they encountered against each other eight years earlier.
The Gamecocks started strong loading the bases in the opening frame with no outs. Christian Walker put SC on the board with an RBI groundout as Clemson turned the double play. The Tigers were able to mitigate the damage, getting out of the inning being down only a run.
Clemson responded in the third, tying the game at 1-1. But then in bottom of the fourth, Walker showed there was still plenty left in the tank. Walker blasted a solo home run deep to left, putting the Gamecocks back in front 2-1.
But the Tigers proved resilient as well. In the seventh, Clemson scored on an overthrow to first in a double-play attempt. The game was tied yet again. In the bottom half, though, USC had runners on the corners with two outs. They seized the opportunity, and it was Walker who delivered for a third time.
Walker drilled a shot to shallow center, bringing the go-ahead run across the plate. Then Adrian Morales connected a base hit to right scoring Bradley Jr. SC took a 4-2 lead late in the semi’s.
Though Clemson got one back in the eighth, South Carolina held off the Tigers, winning 4-3. After a difficult road to the finals, the Gamecocks were two wins away from their first national title.
“That was a fantastic team that had some narrow, scary moments on the way to the national championship, but they found a way,” said Kornblut.
College World Series Championship Series (South Carolina vs. UCLA)
Game One (June 28, 2010)
At Rosenblatt Stadium, in what was the final College World Series to be played at the legendary ballpark, South Carolina faced off against No. 6 UCLA. Blake Cooper got the start for the Gamecocks, while future MLB top draft pick Gerrit Cole got the nod for the Bruins. On this day, however, it was Cooper who delivered a shutdown performance.
Cooper was nothing short of fantastic in the opener on the game’s biggest stage. Cooper pitched eight scoreless innings and struck out 10 before exiting after allowing a run in the ninth.
South Carolina’s hitters were consistent throughout, scoring at least one run in five innings.
Shortstop Bobby Haney went 2-3 with 3 RBI, while Thomas, Merrifield and Evan Marzilli provided another three as the Gamecocks defeated the Bruins handedly, 7-1. Their dominance on the mound, combined with efficiency at the plate came together at the right time. Now they were one win away from that elusive trophy.
Game Two (June 29, 2010)
Roth’s second career start for USC came in game two, facing Rob Rasmussen of UCLA.
The Bruins threatened in the first inning. With runners on first and second and only one out, they were poised to open the scoring. But Roth made a heads-up play on the mound, picking off a runner at second. A routine groundout after that ended the UCLA threat.
In the top of the second, UCLA again had two on, this time with no outs. But Roth quickly induced a double play, then followed that up with a nice diving stop on a slow chopper to get out of the inning.
The Bruins did get on the board in the top of the fifth for a 1-0 lead.
It was the same score in the top of the seventh. The Bruins had runners on the corners with one out. Joe Mata was on in relief. After a pop-up to the catcher for the second out, Christian Walker stopped a grounder down the first base line to get the final out. Although they still trailed, the Gamecocks had avoided another threat.
In the bottom of the eighth and still 1-0 UCLA, Brady Thomas started the rally with a lead-off single.
With one out in the inning and Thomas on second, Haney’s grounder to the right side was misplayed by first baseman Dean Espy and got past second baseman Cody Regis bringing Thomas across with the tying run.
Still tied 1-1 in the ninth, Price worked out of a two out, based loaded jam, striking out UCLA leadoff hitter Niko Gallego and keeping the Bruins off the board.
The game eventually went extra innings.
Price kept the magic coming in the tenth and eleventh, recording strikeouts to end each inning. He finished pitching 2.2 innings, allowing no runs and one hit while striking out three.
Scott Wingo led off the eleventh inning by reaching on a walk, putting the potential game-winning run on base. Moments later, he advanced to second on a passed ball. Marzilli’s sacrifice bunt then moved Wingo to third, thus the Gamecocks were a base hit or sacrifice fly away from winning a national title.
Merrifield stepped to the plate.
Merrifield, facing a 2-0 count, sent a line drive into right field for the walk-off winner. The Gamecocks flocked to Wingo as he crossed home. South Carolina won,2-1, becoming College World Series champs for the first time in program history.
“For Gamecock fans it was like ‘finally, finally,’” said Kornblut. “We’ve got a national championship. A true, big time, major national championship.”
The monkey was off the back, and the excitement extended from Nebraska to South Carolina.
“It was absolute euphoria around here when the team got back from Omaha,” said Kornblut. “[There was] a huge parade through downtown Columbia that went to the Colonial Life Arena, where the place was packed for a pep rally,” said Kornblut.
Batting 10-29 in the series, Bradley was named the College World Series Most Outstanding Player. But there’s no question it was a full team effort that gave them the hardware.
“The 2010 team was one of the best teams in college baseball history,” added Kornblut.
It was also a unique distinction that in the final College World Series game played at Rosenblatt Stadium, the Gamecocks won their first-ever title. They made it back-to-back championships the following season in the first ever CWS played at the new TD Ameritrade Park.
But the 2010 team will always be remembered as the group that got over the Omaha hump.
South Carolina Top Ten List: