Unlikely champ supplies Rosenblatt send-off

Kendall Rogers

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OMAHA, Neb. – Years from now, Rosenblatt Stadium still will be considered the historic home of the College World Series, and always will symbolize the top of the mountain in college baseball. The ballpark served as home to the event since 1950. Some will be sad to see it go. Others recognize the reason for moving the event to a new, sparkling downtown ballpark.

All would admit the shrine went out the best way possible, with a fabulous 11-inning game that ended with South Carolina beating UCLA 2-1 in 11 innings on Tuesday night to earn the program’s first national title and athletic department’s second.

You could say the Gamecocks saved the best for last.

“This is what you work for, to be able to achieve something at this level,” South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman said. “This is a defining moment for us. We can [win national titles].”

Well before playing the Bruins, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner had come close to a national title – in 2002 his team played Texas in the final and lost. But this was so much different. This was the final season at Rosenblatt and more than ever, all eight teams wanted the title. They wanted to be the last champion.

Sitting along the third-base line during the opening ceremonies more than a week ago, Tanner thought about how cool it would be to be in the CWS long enough to see the final pitch thrown at the ballpark.

Little did Tanner know that it would be his Gamecocks hoisting the trophy.

“Without question, it’s very, very special. This has to be the most special postseason tourney in the NCAA,” Tanner said. “You start this thing with 300 teams you’re the last team standing.”

South Carolina put together an impressive regular-season campaign and finished just a game behind Florida for the SEC title. But after going 0-2 in the SEC tournament and getting outscored 6-1 in the process, Tanner had some stern words for his team.

Tanner said after the conference tournament that his team was going straight back to Columbia, S.C., to work on the fundamentals in what he called “two-a-day” workouts.

His ploy worked.

The Gamecocks stormed through the Columbia Regional despite trailing in three of the games. Then they hit the road to the Myrtle Beach Super Regional and ousted in-state foe Coastal Carolina from the postseason to clinch their ninth CWS appearance.

Once in Omaha, the Gamecocks caught the locals by storm and gained fans with their hard-nosed and resilient play. The Gamecocks didn’t have the most talented team in the field of eight, and they certainly didn’t have the best offense, either. But when they needed someone to rise to the occasion, they always could count on someone on the pitching staff or in the field to take care of business.

“I told our guys, this is who we are and this is how we should win. I felt we could get to the postseason and do some special things because of our pitching staff,” Tanner said. “We always had a shot, and this game was typical [of his team].”

On the mound, the stories are endless. South Carolina ace pitcher Blake Cooper made three starts in nine days, and the performances by sophomore left-hander Michael Roth were even more impressive. Roth entered the CWS with zero starts. He left Omaha with two that ultimately led to the Gamecocks winning the national title. Roth pitched the first five innings against UCLA, giving up one run and exiting with his team still in the game.

There also is reliever Matt Price, who threw 46 pitches in the final 2 2/3 innings and earned the victory. Price rose to the occasion in other games here, too.

In the field, third baseman Adrian Morales made solid plays in the title clincher, outfielders Whit Merrifield, Evan Marzilli and Jackie Bradley Jr. tracked down everything. Gamecock fans won’t forget freshman first baseman Christian Walker making a fantastic play to finish off Clemson and advance to the title series.

And it was Merrifield who delivered the winning hit, a slicing line drive to right that scored Scott Wingo and set off a delirious celebration.

You hear it so often, but South Carolina truly was the consummate team.

“We may not have had the fancy stats, but we’re fighters and we don’t go down easily,” Roth said. “You could tell that from the past week.”

For the past 61 seasons, plenty of teams such as the Gamecocks have strolled into Rosenblatt. Some have left the stadium without a national title and their dreams dashed. Others have won national titles and headed home as heros in their respective college towns.

On Tuesday night, the history of the College World Series closed the book on the long Rosenblatt Stadium chapter with a program with limited success on the national stage hoisting the trophy.

South Carolina illustrated everything that is right with college baseball.

Rosenblatt Stadium did and always will, too.