South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner realizes how special it would be for the Gamecocks to win a third straight national championship.
Southern California (1970-74) is the only school to accomplish it in the 66-year history of the College World Series.
In Tanner's mind, simply winning the past two titles is incredible.
"Baseball is a game that sets you back," said Tanner. "If will humble you. It will devastate you. It will crush you if you allow it to. And we talk about that all the time. There's bad at-bats. There's a bad play. There's a bad pitch. And if you dwell on that, it's just too hard. You just have to let those things go and try to stay in the moment."
South Carolina has done that better than anyone the past two years. Do the Gamecocks have a three-peat in their future? Arizona will have something to say about that.
"We're just real excited to be invited to the Ray Tanner invitational," said Arizona head coach Andy Lopez.
The Wildcats are one of a handful of programs to win three national championships, though their last title was in 1986, before anyone on this year's team had been born.
Arizona head coach Andy Lopez can tell his players what its like to hold up the championship trophy. Lopez guided Pepperdine to the 1992 title. He has an opportunity to join Augie Garrido (Cal State Fullerton and Texas) as the only coaches to win national championships at two different schools.
Here's a glance at both teams:
Junior RHP Kurt Heyer (13-2, 2.24 ERA, 113 SO in 153 IP) is Arizona's bulldog. He's already made two starts in Omaha, including Thursday's 10-3 win over Florida State that sent the Wildcats to the championship series. Heyer, a sixth-round draft choice by St. Louis, pitched into the eighth inning after being spotted a six-run lead in the first. Heyer is expected to be available on short rest to pitch Game 2. Sophomore RHP Konner Wade (10-3, 4.17 ERA, 102 SO in 127.1 IP) is at full rest and the logical starter for Game 1. Lopez is eager to see what Wade does coming off a five-hit shutout in last week's 4-0 win over Pac-12 rival UCLA. In sweeping through the winner's bracket, Arizona didn't need three starters. If the championship series goes to a Game 3, then sophomore RHP James Farris (7-3, 4.18 ERA, 69 SO in 99 IP) would be expected to get the ball.
Arizona relievers got in more work on the sidelines than they did in games. Had Arizona's opening game not gone extra innings, Wildcats relievers would have but three innings to show for their time in Omaha. Lopez has plenty of confidence in a pair of freshmen LHPs -- Tyler Crawford (1-1, 3.05 ERA, 2 SV, 18 SO in 38.1 IP) and Mathew Troupe (5-1, 3.60 ERA, 6 SV, 42 SO in 35 IP). They are the only two relievers to take the mound in Omaha, which means things are going well. It also means the remainder of the staff is unproven on college baseball's biggest stage. Lopez would have no problem turning to junior RHP Stephen Manthei (6-4, 4.29 ERA, 2 SV, 25 SO in 35.2 IP) should the need arise.
Spacious TD Ameritrade Park sets up for Arizona, which doesn't hit for power (only 22 home runs in 63 games) but hits for average (the Wildcats are batting a collective .330, which is 70 points higher than opponents) and has speed to boot. Four juniors -- SS Alex Mejia (.362, 3 HR, 53 RBI), 3B Seth Mejias-Brean (.360, 60 RBI, 10 SB), OF Robert Refsnyder (.357, 7 HR, 64 RBI, 14 SB) and OF Joey Rickard (.324, 33 RBI, 18 SB) lead the way with senior DH Bobby Brown (.353, 5 HR, 58 RBI, 7 SB) and sophomore OF Johnny Field (.373, 3 HR, 44 RBI, 11 SB). Mejia, who was drafted in the fourth round by St. Louis, was named Pac-12 Player of the Year as much for his defense as his ability at the plate. Arizona came into the CWS with perhaps the most productive offense of anyone in the field. It remains to be seen if it is spoiled by success, the winner's bracket meaning fewer games played and more time off. Game 1 of the championship series will be just the Wildcats' second game in seven days (it will be the fifth game in seven days for South Carolina).
The task of coming through the loser's bracket so taxed South Carolina's frontline pitching that none of the Gamecocks' three starting pitchers is likely to be available for Game 1. Freshman RHP Evan Beal (4-4, 4.02 ERA) is the most likely to get the Game 1 start. Beal has pitched to all of five batters in the postseason. Of course, that's five more batters than junior LHP Nolan Belcher or sophomore RHP Forrest Koumas -- the other two pitchers being considered -- have faced in the NCAA Tournament. It would be Beal's second start of the season. Senior LHP Michael Roth (9-1, 2.49 ERA, 90 SO in 130.1 IP) is expected to start Game 2 on short rest. Roth has become a CWS legend over the past three years. He started the clinching game each of the past two years and has two wins in this CWS, including a complete-game, two-hitter in a 4-1 win over Kent State on Thursday. Freshman LHP Jordan Montgomery (6-1, 3.62 ERA, 57 SO in 74.2 IP) is a likely Game 3 starter. He allowed just three hits over eight innings in Thursday's 2-0 win over Arkansas. Junior RHP Colby Holmes (7-2, 3.05 ERA, 65 SO in 79.2 IP) will probably move to the bullpen for this series.
South Carolina has allowed four runs or fewer in all 10 of its postseason games, which hasn't been done since Miami (Fla.) accomplished the feat 30 years ago. Credit in large part goes to a pair of juniors -- LHP Tyler Webb (6-1, 1.58 ERA, 3 SV, 57 SO in 57 IP) and RHP Matt Price (5-4, 3.20 ERA, 13 SV, 92 SO in 76 IP) -- who have been at their best at the CWS. Webb is working on a 14.1 inning scoreless streak in Omaha and Price an 18.2 inning scoreless streak. Price closed out the last three innings in Friday's clinching 3-2 win over Arkansas. It was the 11th time he closed out a game in Omaha and the fifth time he picked up a win, both CWS records. South Carolina has other arms in the bullpen -- the aforementioned Holmes, Belcher and Koumas among them -- but Webb and Price are all the Gamecocks have needed to this point.
The pitching has vastly overshadowed a rather unproductive South Carolina offense. The Gamecocks have totaled only 17 runs in their five CWS games. And, heck, two of the three runs Friday against Arkansas came on bases-loaded walks. At least the hitters can be credited for their plate discipline. The only .300 hitters in South Carolina's lineup are 1B Christian Walker (.319, 11 HR, 55 RBI) and OF Tanner English (.303, 23 RBI, 12 SB). Walker, 3B L.B. Dantzler (.266, 10 HR, 48 RBI), OF Adam Matthews (.235, 5 HR, 26 RBI) and C Grayson Greiner (.223, 6 HR, 32 RBI) all have home run power, except maybe at TD Ameritrade Park. There have been but nine HRs in 13 CWS games this year. South Carolina OF Evan Marzilli (.288, 2 HR, 31 RBI, 13 SB) specializes in line drives -- hitting them and tracking them down in center field. Say this for the Gamecocks -- they do remain patient at the plate and supremely confident that the timely hit (or walk) will come.
And the winner is: South Carolina. Logic suggests that Arizona should win. The Wildcats rolled through their side of the bracket, which means their pitching is set up for the championship series. In addition, their offense has been productive from top to bottom. What's not to like? That said, South Carolina's pitching has been outstanding. And, while the two-time defending champion Gamecocks have their offensive shortcomings, they have displayed a resourcefulness and resilience in Omaha over the past three years that is unmatched. And so we go with the Gamecocks until someone can prove otherwise.