As much as it pains me to say it, there were a lot of things that the Gamecocks did wrong last night in their Championship Series opener against Arizona. Carolina will look to right the ship tonight with staff ace Michael Roth on the mound, needing a victory to force a winner-take-all game on Tuesday night. Here are some things that we noticed about last night’s game that we wanted to pass along.
- The jitters affected South Carolina, not Arizona. When you think of teams that are affected by nerves, South Carolina just never really seems to come into the discussion. Even though the team is heavy-laden with freshmen and first-year junior college transfers, you would expect the veteran guys like Roth, Price, Marzilli, Walker, and Webb to be able to calm the whole team down, as it seems they’ve done all year. Arizona had a particularly error-prone defense, and with the team in the midst of its first trip to Omaha since 2004 and first finals appearance since 1986, it seemed that all this would play squarely into South Carolina’s favor. The first pitch of the game was hit by Joey Pankake directly at Wildcats’ third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean–and went directly through his legs into left field. But the play that changed the game happened just three pitches later, when Evan Marzilli lined what appeared to be a sure single into center field. But shortstop Alex Mejia had other plans. He sprinted to his left and dove to corral the ball in his glove, then made the flip to the bag to start a momentum-sapping 6-4-3 double play. Had the ball squirted through the infield, the Gamecocks would have had runners on first and second with nobody out and Christian Walker at the plate, who at the time was just two hits away from tying the all-time hits record at the College World Series. Instead, Walker entered the batter’s box with the bases clear and two outs. The play changed the entire game, and the Gamecocks went on to commit two errors (by two freshmen who have been played remarkably clean baseball as of late), while the Wildcats played solid defense in support of Konner Wade.
- The Gamecocks failed to play good baseball. Arizona coach Andy Lopez makes each of his players describe to him what “good baseball” means to them. Maybe South Carolina should take some lessons. The Gamecocks made countless errors, both mental and physical, that cost them dearly. The impatient plate approach was the most glaring; the Gamecocks swung away early in the count and only forced Konner Wade to throw 110 pitches to go the full nine innings. With the bullpen as Arizona’s most glaring weakness, they can’t afford to take that approach again in tonight’s game. Joey Pankake made an error that cost the Gamecocks a run, and Grayson Greiner, who has a cannon throwing out potential base stealers, made a rare bad throw into center field that also led to an unearned run. Adam Matthews also killed a potential Gamecock rally by trying to go to from first base to third on a Kyle Martin 7th inning single with no outs. Matthews had led off the inning with a single, and South Carolina appeared to be threatening to close the 4-1 gap. It was not a wise choice to try to go to third anyway, but Matthews made a critical mistake as he rounded second base. If a runner is trying to go to third base, he needs to make a wide turn before he gets to second base so that he can make a beeline for third. But Matthews ran straight into the bag at second, making a wide turn after he rounded the bag, causing him to take a less direct route into third. It still took a perfect throw from right field to nab him, but as a senior Matthews has to know better than to make such a basic baserunning mistake that absolutely killed the potential Gamecock rally. When Arizona’s opponents fail to score five runs in a game, the Wildcats’ record is 30-1. South Carolina can’t afford to make critical mistakes tonight if it intends to outscore Arizona’s prolific offense.
- It’s been a long, long time since we gave up this many runs. It’s no secret that the Gamecocks tend to play some of their best baseball when they get to Omaha, but last night they struggled in all facets of the game. Arizona tallied five runs on the Gamecocks, something no opponent has done in Omaha since June of 2004. The Gamecocks beat Miami 15-11 in that year’s College World Series, but had not allowed an opponent to score more than four runs in its last 19 CWS games. It will be a tall task to hold Arizona’s offense to less than five runs, but doing so would give the Gamecocks’ offense a fighting chance to outscore the Wildcats and stretch this series to three games.
- Arizona pounced in a game they had to win, but don’t be surprised if there’s baseball Tuesday night. In an informal poll of the Gamecock press corps before last night’s game, the results were unanimous: for Arizona to win this series, they would have to win Game 1. Sunday night set up extremely well for them, especially with Forrest Koumas, who had only pitched in competitive games four times since the end of March, taking the mound. They took full advantage of the opportunity given to them. But now, South Carolina will be sending their ace to the mound in Michael Roth with a nearly fully-rested bullpen behind him. Most importantly, Tyler Webb and Matt Price will definitely be ready to pitch tonight if needed. It’s not a sure win for South Carolina–the offense has to actually score a run or two in order to win. But you have to like South Carolina’s chances to stretch this series to three games.