OMAHA, Neb. – Down to two teams at the 2012 College World Series, it’s hard to imagine two teams as different as the two combatants for this season’s national championship.
Or are South Carolina and Arizona all that different when you start scratching beneath the surface?
Whatever the answer, we’re about to get a full dose of whatever reality is with a national crown on the line.
The Gamecocks (49-18) and Wildcats (46-17) lock horns in the best-of-three national championship series starting at 7 p.m. Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park, with Game 2 at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Game 3, if necessary, at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
At first blush, there seems to be a lot differentiating the two finalists.
Team pitching: 1.20 ERA
The elephant in the discussion, of course, is the level of experience at this stage of the season.
South Carolina is taking aim at a third consecutive national crown, something that hasn’t been achieved in college baseball since Southern California piled up five titles in a row from 1970-74.
The core group of Gamecocks who will take the diamond for the first pitch Sunday have been around for both previous championships, although there are a handful of freshmen interspersed at key spots.
Arizona, meanwhile, is in Omaha for the first time since 2004 and the climb here took some tough, incremental steps and a notable move to a different home ballpark this season.
Team pitching: 1.60 ERA
The way the two teams have gotten things done the last nine days is also divergent – and similar to what’s added up to their success all season long.
For Carolina, the method has been the same grind-it-out style that’s let to 28 one-run games this season. Pitching and defense are at the soul of how the Gamecocks win, with timely offensive execution replacing big innings.
South Carolina is hitting .219 as a team in the CWS and has won four games despite scoring only 17 runs. The Gamecocks’ team ERA is 1.60, though, and they are fielding at a .995 clip.
The Wildcats arrived in Omaha as the hottest offensive team and have adapted well, relying on top-notch pitching (a CWS-best 1.20 ERA in three games) and rock-solid defense (one error in 30 defensive innings) to carve out two wins before rediscovering things with the bats with a 15-hit explosion in a 10-3 triumph over Florida State last Thursday.
And then there’s just a different personality between the two programs, perhaps built in by geography and how they each play baseball.
The Gamecocks are loose and relaxed – comfortable being back again on this biggest of stages there is for college baseball.
Arizona’s players are a bit more reserved, perhaps a product of being here for the first time, and seem focused on soaking it all in.
To add one more twist to the storyline, the two coaches seem to be exuding an almost opposite feeling of their respective teams.
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USC’s Ray Tanner is sticking to the underdog foothold.
“We’re probably the underdog,” said Tanner, who is seeking to join Texas’ Augie Garrido as the only active coach with three national championships. “We’ve been through the loser’s bracket. We’ve played a couple of extra games. And these guys (Arizona) are scoring 10-12 runs a game. They’re just an offensive juggernaut, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.
“Maybe they have the advantage because of their offensive prowess, so we’ll see. We’ll see if we can step up on the mound and keep things interesting.”
Wildcats’ coach Andy Lopez, on the other hand, speaks with a verbal swagger about this team, which was constructed starting in 2010 after UA bottomed out and missed the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Now Lopez is also looking to join Garrido as the only coach in NCAA history to lead two different programs to an NCAA crown. He won the 1992 CWS with Pepperdine and 20 years later is on the cusp of history.
Lopez quipped about being part of the Ray Tanner Invitational and spoke with a confidence about a Wildcats crew that is in the middle of a season-best nine-game winning streak (8-0 in the NCAA Tournament) and has won 16 of the last 18 games.
“We’re here because we’re playing good baseball and I’m not going to do anything to change that,” Lopez said. “The season is a grind and when you get to the postseason and especially if you’re fortunate enough to get to Omaha, this is a reward for these guys.”
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While there’s nothing bigger at stake than the national championship the next few days, there is also an underlying theme of SEC vs. Pac-12 baseball.
The SEC has grabbed college baseball’s catbird seat as the best league in the country, with the Gamecocks trying to win the league’s fourth championship in a row and 10th in the last 23 years.
After a lull in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Pac-12 is firmly back among the national elite, with UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State and UA all regarded as big-time players on the national scene.
But for West Coast baseball to garner some tangible respect, an Arizona victory would do an awful lot.
There’s a delicate balance between respect for the other league and pride in your own.
“When I went to the (Cape Cod League) and was talking with my teammates, they’re from all over and they always joked about the ‘Pace 10’ and the ‘Pace 12,’ ” Wildcats outfielder Robert Refsnyder said. “So that’s kind of where I realized we need to try and gain some respect nationally.
“I think it’s great for Arizona, for the West Coast and for the Pac to be matched up against such a powerhouse in the SEC and hopefully it helps the Pac-12 gain some momentum in the whole realm of college athletics, especially college baseball.”
South Carolina’s players talked about their respect for Arizona for being on the other side of the championship matchup, but there was also talk about what it takes to get through – survive – in the SEC on a weekly basis, something Lopez learned during his tenure as Florida’s coach from 1994-2001.
Whether it was meant to be deferential or not, the Wildcats spoke about the Gamecocks like they were from a different stratosphere.
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“These are the people I watched on television during summer ball the last few years,” Refsnyder said. “They’re doing something right.”
Added UA shortstop Alex Mejia, “They’re trying to do something special over there.”
Don’t mistake the respect for Carolina for the Wildcats not focusing on the task at hand or being just as intent on winning as the Gamecocks.
Arizona owns three national championships, the last in 1986, and three runnerup showings in a proud history.
One of those totals will increase by one in the next few days and for a team built around a strong junior class brought to Tucson to get the Wildcats back on track, the journey to get to this point has been a magical one.
“Omaha sometimes feels like an unobtainable goal, especially when you’re in 6 o’clock weights and running and saying ‘Boy, I hope we get there, because it might be for nothing,’ ” Refsnyder said. “It’s neat that we’re a part of it and great that we’re playing the best baseball of the year and we’re just looking forward to competing against South Carolina. It’s going to be a great matchup.”