Ted Kirk/Associated Press file photo
Ted Kirk/Associated Press file photo
OMAHA, Neb. – Arizona came to the College World Series as one of the hottest teams in the nation and swept three consecutive games to reach the championship round.
Yet coach Andy Lopez and his players know few outside their fan base are paying much attention to them as the best-of-three series starts today.
That’s because South Carolina (49-18) completed an improbable run to the finals, where it will try to become the first team in 40 years to win a third consecutive title.
“We’re just excited to be invited to the Ray Tanner Invitational,” Lopez said.
At that, Tanner, the Gamecocks’ 16th-year coach, playfully punched Lopez to open their pre-finals news conference.
“We’ve got a pretty good team,” Tanner said, “but we’re not the ’27 Yankees. We’ve had 28 one-run games. We know that every at-bat is crucial for us.
“We’ve got the chance to play in the finals a third time in a row. It’s hard to wrap your arms around that. You just have to have some good luck and fortune along the way, a couple clutch performances along the way.”
Sophomore right-hander Konner Wade (10-3), who threw a complete-game five-hit shutout against UCLA last Sunday, will be the Game 1 starter for Arizona (46-17).
Tanner was undecided on which pitcher will face an Arizona team that is fourth in the nation in batting (.330) and sixth in scoring (7.4 runs a game).
“Most of the time I’ll get a guy or two that kind of gets to me and says, ‘I really want the ball,’” Tanner said with a smile. “But since they’ve watched these guys hit, I’m not getting those guys. They’re avoiding me. All the pitchers are going in a different direction.”
Few would have expected the Gamecocks to even return to Omaha this year after they had to replace five regulars in the lineup from the team that beat Florida in the 2011 finals. They had to develop chemistry in an infield that had three new faces and bounce back from losses in five of their first six SEC games.
At the CWS, their streak of 22 consecutive wins in NCAA tournament games ended with a 2-1 loss to Arkansas last Monday. They staved off elimination three times thanks to stellar pitching. They beat Kent State once and the Razorbacks twice in a span of 36 hours because of a Wednesday rainout.
“The whole story of a three-peat, as a fan I definitely would be rooting for that because that’s an unbelievable feat,” Arizona right fielder Robert Refsnyder said. “The weird, quirky fan who wants to see Arizona win, I’ll take that fan.”
The last program to show as much dominance as the Gamecocks was Southern California, which won five consecutive championships from 1970-74.
The difference is that the Gamecocks have had to deal with scholarship limits and bat standards that have reduced offense and created unprecedented parity in the college game. They also have had to survive the night-in, night-out battles in the SEC, the nation’s most powerful baseball conference. The SEC has had a team in the finals five consecutive years.
Tanner said the Gamecocks have had sustained success because they don’t dwell on accomplishments.
“You really can’t allow yourself to go there,” Tanner said. “You just try to play the next game.”
For all the roster turnover, the Gamecocks have found stability in their pitching staff.
Michael Roth, a senior left-hander, has a 1.34 career ERA in the CWS. He has allowed just eight runs on 31 hits in a CWS career-record 53 2/3 innings. Seven of his nine appearances in Omaha have been starts, tied for the most ever.
Roth is 4-0 in CWS games, and two of his three complete games in Omaha have come in elimination games. The most recent complete came in a two-hitter against Kent State on Thursday.
Junior lefty Tyler Webb and closer Matt Price also have pitched three consecutive years in the CWS. Those two combined for seven shutout innings against Arkansas on Friday, with Price closing the game for his CWS-record fifth career win in Omaha.
“The first opening ceremonies for the College World Series, they tell you it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Roth said. “I was blowing all my meal money thinking I’m never going to get back here. There is no way we would have thought we would be here three years in a row.”
Arizona has won nine consecutive games, including all eight in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats beat Florida State, UCLA and the Seminoles again to reach the finals. They’ll be playing for their fourth national title, but first since 1986.
Lopez won a national title at Pepperdine in 1992 and brought Florida to the CWS in 1996 and `98. He’s back in Omaha in his eighth season at Arizona.
The Wildcats have been building for this season since 2010, when Lopez signed one of the nation’s top freshman classes.
Center fielder Joey Rickard, shortstop Alex Mejia, third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean and Refsnyder were all drafted in the top nine rounds this year. They led the Wildcats to some of the best offensive numbers in the nation and a Pac-12 co-championship.
The pitching staff is led by the durable and dependable Kurt Heyer (13-1). The junior leads the nation in wins, and his 154 2/3 innings are the most by a Division I pitcher since 2006.
Wade, Heyer and No. 3 starter James Farris are counted on to log lots of innings for Lopez, who is hesitant to turn to an inexperienced bullpen.
The Wildcats have just 22 home runs, but they hit into gaps, move runners over and score in bunches. Seven starters are batting .324 or higher, and the team has won 16 of 18 since dropping a series at Oregon that put its hopes of hosting a regional in jeopardy.
“As the year goes on you have to learn how to win,” Mejia said. “You can’t get caught up in the emotions if you lose a game. We’ve done a real good job of that.”