Catch 22: Gamecocks keep streak alive against Gators

Erik Payne’s three-run triple highlighted a five-run fifth inning, as the South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Florida Gators, 7-3, in the first round of the College World Series, held at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska Saturday night.

The Gamecocks extended their NCAA record winning streak in the postseason to 22 straight games, including 12 in a row at the College World Series, in front of an announced attendance of 25,291.

“That was a great game,” said South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner. “Hard-fought game, Roth and Johnson getting after it at the beginning of the game. We kept hanging around and had the big five-run fifth. We loaded them up, a couple of hits and a walk and Payne hit, I guess it was a two-strike pitch in the alley. It gave us a chance to get all three runs on the board. But anytime you play a team like the Gators and every pitch is a big deal. It was pretty much like that tonight. Even at the end of the game, we scored a few extras, but they were coming right back and they almost got the tying run until that play at the end.”

The Gators got on the scoreboard first with a pair of runs in the bottom of the third. Justin Shafer and Vickash Ramjit stroked back-to-back singles to open the inning. The Gamecocks flashed some leather, as Michael Roth made a diving catch of Josh Tobias’s sacrifice bunt attempt for the first out and Chase Vergason made a diving stop on a grounder off the bat of Nolan Fontana and flipped to Joey Pankake to force Ramjit at second for the second out. But Preston Tucker lined a double over Tanner English’s head in left field, plating both runners for an early 2-0 Gator advantage.

Evan Marzilli led off the decisive fifth with a double to the right-centerfield gap, his second two-bagger of the game. Christian Walker followed with his second hit of the night, a single to left, putting runners at the corners. Adam Matthews walked to load the bases with no outs, setting the stage for Payne’s bases-clearing triple to the right-centerfield wall. LB Dantzler followed with an RBI double to deep center, ending Gator starter Brian Johnson’s night on the mound. Tanner English bunted Dantzler to third and Vergason capped the uprising with an RBI single to center. Johnson (8-5) worked four-plus innings, allowing eight hits and five runs, all earned, with three walks and five strikeouts.

“I was trying to keep my hand still and try to stay balanced and work the whole field,” said Payne. “I got a fastball that I could drive and I slid a gap and I was fortunate enough that it fell.”

Florida answered with a single run in the bottom of the fifth. Tobias singled to left and Fontana was hit by a pitch to put a pair of runners on base with no outs. Both runners moved up 90 feet on a ground out and Tobias scored on a sacrifice fly by Mike Zunino, the third player taken in the recent MLB Draft, to cut the Carolina lead to 5-3.

The Gamecocks added a pair of insurance runs in the top of the ninth, aided by some wildness from the Gator pitching staff and less than stellar fielding. Walker led off with walk, moved to second on Matthews’ sacrifice bunt, advanced to third on a wild pitch from Keenan Kish and scored on a wild pitch from Steven Rodriguez. Both Kish’s and Rodriguez’s wild pitches came with Payne at the plate. With two outs, Dantzler reached base safely when Rodriguez was unable to cleanly handle a slow roller. He moved to second on English’s second single of the night and scored when Ramjit threw wildly to the pitcher covering first on Vergason’s sharp grounder.

The fifth inning uprising for the Gamecocks came after they were frustrated early in the contest, wasting scoring chances in each of the first four innings and stranding a total of seven runners in that span.

In the top of the first, Marzilli reached on an error and Walker followed with a single to right. Both runners moved up a base on a double steal. Payne walked on four pitches to load the bases with two outs, but Dantzler struck out to end the frame.

In the second, Vergason stroked a one-out single to right and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Dante Rosenberg, but Joey Pankake flied out to end the inning.

Marzilli led off the third with a double to the right field wall and advanced to third on Walker’s fly to center, but Matthews struck out and Payne was retired on a fly to center to end the threat.

Dantzler led off the fourth inning with a single to center. English fouled off several offerings in an 11-pitch at-bat before coaxing a walk. Dantzler was forced at third on Vergason’s sacrifice bunt attempt for the first out. Grayson Greiner made his first appearance in the postseason as a pinch hitter, but struck out looking. Pankake belted a deep fly ball to center that Daniel Pigott ran down to end the inning.

Gamecock starter Michael Roth (8-1) worked 6.1 innings, allowing seven hits and three runs, all earned, with three walks and three strikeouts. He threw 98 pitches, 54 for strikes. Roth became the fourth pitcher to win a game in three different College World Series.

Southpaw reliever Tyler Webb relieved Roth and escaped a bases loaded, one-out jam in the bottom of the seventh inning by retiring Tucker on a short fly to left then getting Johnson to line out to right.

Carolina closer Matt Price worked the final two frames, retiring six of the eight batters he faced, including three by strikeout. He was helped by Marzilli’s spectacular diving catch on a sinking liner by Pigott leading off the bottom of the eighth. Price logged his 42nd career save, moving him into sole possession of eighth place on the NCAA’s all-time list, and breaking the SEC record.

Carolina finished the night with a dozen hits off six Gator hurlers. They left 12 runners on base, putting runners on base in every inning except the eighth. Florida collected nine hits and left nine on base.

The Gamecocks (46-17) will return to action Monday night at 9 p.m. ET in a winner’s bracket game against Arkansas (45-20). The Razorbacks were 8-1 winners over Kent State on Saturday afternoon. Florida (47-19) and Kent State (46-19) will play in an elimination game on Monday afternoon at 5 p.m. ET.

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