OMAHA, Neb. – Arizona and South Carolina both ended Sunday night on new ground in the College World Series.
How both teams handle their situations for the next day – or two – will be a major factor in determining who gets to call themselves national champion for the next year.
|Konner Wade: Logs a second straight complete-game at the CWS and limits South Carolina to six hits|
The Wildcats got a two-run home run from Robert Refsnyder in the first inning to allow them to exhale and a another stifling performance on the mound from Konner Wade to derail the Gamecocks 5-1 in the opening game of the best-of-three national championship series at TD Ameritrade Park.
Game 2 is slated for 7 p.m. Monday and the dynamics for both teams are obvious.
For Arizona (47-17), win Monday night and claim the program’s first national championship on the baseball diamond since 1986, which would cap an incredible late-season push by the Pac-12 co-champions.
In the South Carolina clubhouse, there’s an unfamiliar sense of desperation.
This is the Gamecocks’ third straight trip to the national championship series and the first time they’ve dropped a game.
USC coach Ray Tanner will send senior Michael Roth to the mound for the must-win game in hopes of forcing a third game for all the marbles on Tuesday.
“It’s not where we would want to be … but, you know, we're still playing,” Tanner said. “And you win (Monday), you even it up and get a little momentum going in the third game.”
UA has that same goal, of course, and there shouldn’t be any uptightness or pressure on a team that is now 9-0 in the NCAA Tournament and has won 17 of its last 19 games since the first weekend of May.
Then again, it doesn’t sound like there was a lot of tension in the Wildcats dugout before or during their first appearance in a national championship setting in 26 years.
“No jitters whatsoever,” Arizona coach Andy Lopez said and then pulled the curtain back on a pre-game fun fest that broke out while he was working up a pitching plan.
“God only knows what they were doing, but it was the loudest, goofiest group of young athletes I’ve been around in about 30 years. … They were playing some goofy game. I sat there and went, ‘Wow, these guys are kind of loose (Sunday).”
The three Wildcats at the postgame press gathering Lopez playfully begged out of identifying their pre-game antics, but there was no doubt they were looser when the game began than they had been in Saturday’s pre-series media session.
It didn’t hurt to get two key plays in the first inning, one with a glove and with the powerful stroke of Refsnyder’s bat.
Leadoff man Joey Pankake reached for Carolina (49-19) when his hot shot went right through third baseman Set Mejias-Brean’s legs for just the second UA error of the CWS.
Wade, who threw his second masterpiece in two CWS starts with a complete-game six-hitter, struck out Christian Walker to get the Wildcats to the plate with the game scoreless.
It didn’t stay that way long, though.
|Refsnyder: 'Sometimes you close your eyes and swing really hard, good things happen.'|
With one out, Johnny Field yanked a base hit to left field off Gamecocks’ starter Forrest Koumas. Mejia made the second out on a weak comebacker and Koumas was in charge against Refsnyder with a 2-and-2 count.
On the next pitch, though, Refsnyder tattooed a ball the other way to right-center field that kept carrying until it cleared the outfield fence for a two-run home run and early Arizona cushion.
“The wind was blowing out, so that helped a little bit,” Refsnyder said about his second homer of the World Series. “I was fortunate enough to run into it. Sometimes you close your eyes and swing really hard, good things happen.”
Refsnyder’s blast, in the heels of the pre-game loosening-up festivities, eradicated any possibility of the Wildcats playing tight against the battled-tested Gamecocks.
“When you get ahead in the first inning against an opponent like that, had been there two years in a row, this is the third, anytime you get ahead of a team, to be honest, you get more relief, you get settled in a lot faster than you would as opposed to being a tie game going into the ninth,” Mejia said.
Added Refsnyder, “It helped Konner’s confidence, I'm sure, a few runs, and helped the team’s confidence because South Carolina is two-time defending champ, and any time you can get ahead of a team like that it’s big, because you're going to need every run against them.”
Turned out Wade didn’t need a whole lot more as his late-season metamorphosis climbed to another level.
Triggered by the double-play ball in the first inning, Wade mowed down 15 of 16 USC hitters through the sixth inning. He consistently pitched ahead in counts and got the Gamecocks frustrated and chasing pitcher’s pitches.
“I can’t say enough about my defense (Sunday),” Wade said. “They really picked me up in some big situations. … It was huge, knowing that you can pitch to contact with this defense behind you.”
As stout as the UA defense was, Tanner was quick to credit the pitcher.
“We just couldn’t get in a situation to do anything offensively,” Tanner said. “He kept making big pitches when he needed to.”
With Wade confounding Carolina, the Wildcats pecked away for single runs in the third and fifth frames – but also squandered chances to blow the game completely open.
Arizona chased Koumas in the third when Trent Gilbert led off and reached on an error, Joey Rickard dropped a single just over the third baseman and Mejia rifled an RBI hit into left field. After Koumas intentionally walked Refsnyder to load the bases, Evan Beal came in and induced a 6-4-3 double play off Mejias-Brean’s bat to end the threat.
|Evan Beal was a bright spot for the Gamecocks with 5 innings of solid relief|
Another double play ended the UA fourth and stranded a runner at third base.
Then in the fifth, Field walked with one out, got to second on a wild pitch and third on USC catcher Grayson Greiner’s errant throw. Mejias-Brean made amends with a two-out single to center field for a 4-0 cushion.
The Wildcats’ only other run also came on a two-out hit – Bobby Brown delivering in the seventh. Arizona stranded 11 runners, leaving the bases loaded in the eighth inning when Nolan Belcher took over for Beal and got Mejia on an infield popout and struck out Refsnyder.
“I thought we had a couple of opportunities we didn’t cash in,” Lopez said. “We didn't sacrifice it one time. We had bases loaded and went double play, which goes against our teaching philosophies. A lot of that has to do with the people on the other side of the field, too. South Carolina made good pitches when they had to in situations.”
The Gamecocks also squandered chances to chip away after finally finding a handful of openings in the sixth and seventh frames.
Greiner began the sixth inning with a double – Carolina’s only extra-base hit – but he was still there with two outs. Marzilli finally delivered a key hit for the Gamecocks when his roller through the middle eluded the Wildcats’ middle defense to score Greiner and cut the deficit to 4-1.
|Game-changer: Arizona 3B Seth Mejias-Brean tags South Carolina's Adam Matthews out in the seventh inning on a throw from Robert Refsnyder|
Adam Matthews led off the seventh inning with a solid single to left and Tyler Martin roped a second hit to right field. With Matthews barreling around toward third base, Refsnyder calmly scooped up the ball and fired a laser to Mejias-Brean for a 9-5 putout.
“I wasn't sure he would throw the ball with the score at the time,” Tanner said. “I thought maybe he would throw it to second. He had to make a perfect throw to third, and he did.”
Added Refsnyder, “I was surprised that Matthews decided to take the extra base. The ball was hit relatively hard through the hole.
“So I came through that ball real hard and I really wasn't expecting Matthews to go. But I thought he kind of hesitated, so I decided to let it rip. … It was a big momentum shift for us.”
Especially for Wade.
After that backbreaker for Carolina, Wade settled back into the groove and got the final two outs of the seventh. The Gamecocks went in order in the eighth and Wade shrugged off Walker’s leadoff single in the ninth by getting the heart of the USC batting order without any damage.
Afterward, Lopez said he was “in awe” of Wade, who has been the best pitcher in the CWS.
“The thing about him, and he knows this, he went through a little bit of a stretch early in the season where he just wasn't throwing strikes,” Lopez said. “He has tremendous arm-side sink, has a really good changeup with arm-side sink as well. So I think those strikes, he gets a lot of swing-throughs, he also gets a lot of ground ball. They just don't square him up very easily when he's throwing strikes.”
There were plenty of those Sunday and now the Gamecocks are behind the 8-ball.
Just don’t expect the two-time champion to hand their crown over to Arizona without a battle.
“We have to come out (Monday) and pretend like nothing ever happened and go out and hopefully get a win,” Marzilli said. “That's what we’ve gotta do. There’s no thinking about it anymore. There's no feeling sorry for yourself after this one loss. You have to go out there and forget about it real quick, especially in this series.”
Tanner echoed his center fielder’s resilient attitude.
“Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not,” Tanner said. “They’re really, really good.
“Let’s get back on the horse and try to get a win (Monday).”