Florida, South Carolina take comparable paths into title series
OMAHA, Neb. – Every team takes its own route to the College World Series. Some may be similar to others, but the events and results of a four-month season are unique.
When Florida and South Carolina meet in the best two-of-three CWS Championship Series beginning Monday night, there are some more similarities between the final two teams remaining than what we may be used to.
There’s the obvious one. Both teams hail from the powerful SEC Eastern Division, which had three of the final four teams remaining in Omaha.
Then there’s the triumphant return of star players from injuries here at the College World Series. The Gators and Gamecocks had their fair share of players go down at different points. Most notably, 2010 CWS Most Outstanding Player Jackie Bradley Jr. for S.C. missed the second half of the season with a wrist injury, but took his first swings since late April upon arriving in Omaha and has played in all three games.
Injuries to other various players through the course of the season led South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner to think he may not have enough outfielders to play if he lost one more. A coach that is known for losing sleep over filling out a lineup card had 42 different combinations in 2011. The Gamecocks have played 67 games.
Florida has seen its injuries and hurdles more recently. Every coach always says to win a championship, you need a little luck along the way and to stay healthy. For Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, having DH/Pitcher Brian Johnson back from a nasty concussion could certainly be called lucky – considering what the scene looked like after Johnson was hit in the head with a ball on a throw to second base by catcher Mike Zunino. Johnson has been in the lineup during the CWS, but will return to the mound at some point against the Gamecocks this week, as well.
“I don’t see us winning a title without Johnson helping us do so on the mound,” O’Sullivan said.
Getting closer Austin Maddox into Friday’s game against Vanderbilt was also huge. Maddox’s foot healed enough from an injury in the Regionals that he was able to close out the Commodores and stabilize the backend of one of the nation’s best bullpen. Maddox lowered his ERA to 0.69.
There is also another obvious similarity between the two schools. Florida and South Carolina both made the trip to Omaha in 2010. But once you get past the surface, the road forks.
The Gators went two-and-que on its trip a year ago. They barely had any time to get settled before they were on a plane back to Gainesville. No trip to the zoo, no Old Market. Staying outside of town, O’Sullivan and his team didn’t get to see any of the sights and sounds of Omaha’s best attraction of the year.
Getting back here this season was relatively easy, besides the late injuries to Johnson and Maddox, but playing in the nation’s toughest conference means it’s never a sure thing. Getting a taste of what it was all about a year ago has helped, though.
“It definitely helps getting here before,” Florida catcher Mike Zunino said. “But getting a taste of Omaha helped, but we got a bad taste, we were two and done last year, and it's something we didn't want to do this year. We came out with more of a confidence and just of a demeanor we know what we had to get done. And we're just trying to do that.”
For the Gamecocks, we all know what they did. Closing Rosenblatt Stadium with their first title in program history, we all know what the Gamecocks continue to do as an encore. Winners of a record 14 consecutive NCAA tournament games – nine in a row in the Gateway to the West – it’s been a different year for Tanner, but they are only two wins away from becoming the sixth school in history to repeat as a Division I Baseball champion.
There were the questions about starting pitching entering the year. Who was going to fill the spots of Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson in the rotation?
Michael Roth answered those, and then some, with a sparkling 13-3 record to go along with a miniscule 0.98 ERA. For Roth, all of the success – the media requests, the billboards around town – can be traced back to his coming out party exactly a year ago a few miles down 13th Street.
“You know we really haven't been an imposing team, and not to discount my guys or anything like that, we're not a team that can throw a crooked number on you, Tanner said. “We have to pitch and play defense and stay in the game and win one late.”
Two teams, two paths, and two histories will collide. Bradley Jr. isn’t surprised it’s these two.
“I thought all along we were the best two teams here and we’ve made it,” Bradley Jr. said.
Unlike the other division foe the Gators faced in Omaha in which they dominated during the season, Florida lost two-of-three against the Gamecocks in a series in Gainesville back in March. A lot has changed since then, though.
“I think there's a lot of things that change. Everyone's not quite figured out their lineup,” Florida slugger Preston Tucker said. “Everyone's trying to figure out what role they play. I know us and South Carolina are both different teams than we have been in the past. But you know it's all about who is playing well right now. I think if guys step up in certain situations, I think the best team should win.”
“Our pitching rotation was a little in flux still that second week since in the SEC,” Roth said. “So that's kind of settled down for us. And our lineup was kind of the same back then, but it's kind of changed with all the injuries, but we're pretty similar still, and like they said it's going to be a fight.”
No matter which way the story goes from here, it will be a good one. Either Florida will be celebrating its first national championship in program history, or South Carolina will etch itself as a mini-dynasty in a sport that hasn’t seen too many.