Commentary

This team doesn't know how to quit

Originally Published: June 23, 2012
By Travis Haney | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Baseball is not supposed to work like this.

It's a game predicated on inconsistency and unpredictability, of highs and lows so extreme and wildly swinging that even the best of the planet's athletes sometimes flunk themselves out of a career virtually overnight.

So, can you blame South Carolina's staff and players when a few of them offered realistic assessments a week ago, on the eve of the College World Series?

"We're just happy we made it this far," one said, rolling his eyes.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina baseball
AP Photo/Ted KirkThis wasn't expected to be a South Carolina season ending with a celebration in Omaha. But it might happen.

"Well, I'm not expecting to be here long," another said with a straight face.

You have to appreciate that honesty. Baseball is not supposed to work like this. Right?

Normally, no. But we've learned in three years' time that this South Carolina team isn't exactly normal.

This year, the players borderline hero-worship a Betta fish named Reptar, the pet of newcomer LB Dantzler. Two years ago, they fashioned the mystical "Avatar Spirit Stick" by taping a baseball to a fungo bat.

The relievers have done a Rockettes routine in the bullpen during tense moments. The dugout swayed and danced last week as everyone sang "Don't Stop Believin' " when the team trailed in the middle innings.

They're weird. And they win.

Still, there surely had to be some limit to this magical run. Even those on the payroll, salary or scholarship, thought so.

After claiming national championships the past two years -- the first men's NCAA titles in the school's history, mind you -- the reachable, reasonable goal for the Gamecocks in 2012 was to just get to this round of eight. If they pulled that off, with a mostly new crew of arms and bats, that would be a remarkable accomplishment.

And it was. But they don't know when -- or how -- to quit, evidently. True to what earned them the past two trophies, they have continued to find a way to defy logic and history books. The Gamecocks have won anyway -- despite mounting circumstances against them.

How about facing the most talented team in the field, Florida, to start the event? The result: a 7-3 come-from-behind victory in which the Gators (three errors) melted down.

How about having to play two games in one day, the first time that's happened in Omaha since 1980? The result: The opponents scored a run on five hits in those 18 innings, and South Carolina became the first team since 1952 to win two games in one day in the College World Series.

The Gamecocks made it three wins in two days, defeating Arkansas 3-2 in a grind-it-out, lose-years-off-your-life sort of elimination game Friday night.

"Unbelievable," was all ace Michael Roth could muster in a text message after the victory that again launched the Gamecocks into the championship series.

Should they find a way to win two more games -- against very capable Arizona, granted -- they'll join the Southern Cal teams of the early 1970s (1970-74) as the only teams to win three consecutive College World Series.

[+] EnlargeRay Tanner
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireRay Tanner and his staff have dabbled in chemistry the past two years, fusing together the remaining pieces with new ones.

Ray Tanner, who arrived at South Carolina in 1997, already had established the school as one of the recognizable contenders in the sport, but what the past three years have done is lift the Gamecocks to the game's top tier. They might not be LSU, Texas or USC yet -- but they're gaining ground quickly.

Don't believe it? In addition to the very real possibility of a three-peat, South Carolina had won 22 consecutive NCAA tournament games -- 12 straight in Omaha -- until Arkansas ended that streak Monday night in a 2-1 result. Texas previously held the record, with 15. These Gamecocks, even with the names and faces changing each year -- and especially in 2012 -- are lapping the field with what they're doing.

That's where a tip of the cap is merited for Tanner and his staff of Chad Holbrook, Jerry Meyers and Sammy Esposito. They are baseball coaches who have dabbled in chemistry the past two years, fusing together the remaining pieces with new ones. They push the parts together, step back and hope there's no explosion.

It looked for a time this season when the whole thing was going to go nuclear, when the Gamecocks started 1-5 in the SEC and the brash and sometimes-immature newcomers were frustrating the older guys. (Roth and one of the freshmen had to be separated when the youngster refused to take part in the dugout antics.)

But winning has a way of ironing out differences and bringing guys together. At one point, South Carolina won 12 consecutive conference games. Despite the start, it won its division and fell just a win shy of the outright league title. Those impatient fans who were howling in March were cooing in familiar joy by Memorial Day.

The closer June drew near, the more the Gamecocks played as they did the past two summers. Now that it's here, it's as if nothing's changed, even though there are five new position players in the everyday lineup. Give the rookies respect: With a new third baseman, shortstop and second baseman, the team has committed just one error in the five CWS games.

With Roth and closer Matt Price leading the way, pitching again has been the team's calling card. Its current 2.95 ERA is incredible, right in between the 2011 (2.45) and 2010 (3.45) versions.

In the three years, South Carolina pitchers have held opponents to a .224 batting average while they have batted .288, getting just enough timely hitting to scratch out close wins. The team has won a total of 37 one-run games the past three seasons, including seven in Omaha.

It's silly, all of it. An athletic program known for choking in big moments, long held as the Chicken Curse, is now recognized as clutch because of what the Carolina 9 have done during these summers.

Baseball is not supposed to work like this. Given the Gamecocks' track record, however, it sure seems like it could for at least two more games.

• Joined ESPN as Insider's national college football writer in April 2012
• Previously wrote for The Oklahoman and The Post and Courier

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