OMAHA, Neb. – Whit Merrifield knew he had to make simple contact.
The junior outfielder stood at the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning of a tie game with the biggest potential run in the history of South Carolina baseball standing on third base.
And on a 2-0 pitch, Merrifield brought that run home with a sharp single to right-field, a hit that delivered a 2-1 win over UCLA and the program’s first NCAA championship Tuesday night in the final College World Series game at Rosenblatt Stadium.
“It was just elation when I saw it go through. I knew I got the barrel on it,” Merrifield said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was jumping up and down and screaming and just waiting for my teammates to come tackle me. Gosh, this is unbelievable.”
The Gamecocks (54-16) swept the Bruins (51-17) in the best-of-three championship series. Their six straight wins after an opening loss set a CWS record and wrote a perfect ending in the final chapter of the historic old ballpark, home to 61 College World Series since 1950.
“You want to play among the best and try to be one of the best one day. Many times it’s just a dream but sometimes it becomes reality. Here in 2010 in the final chapter of Rosenblatt, it all worked out for the Gamecocks,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “We’re going to be in the history books for a long, long time. I know the new stadium is going to be tremendous but this is history, and we’ll be a part of that for many years to come.”
In their fourth appearance in a CWS title game, the Gamecocks finally are bringing the hardware back to Columbia after 35 years of baseball excellence through three head coaches.
Scott Wingo drew the leadoff walk in the 11th off UCLA closer Dan Klein (6-1), who was in his fourth inning of work, and advanced to second on a passed ball. He moved to third on Evan Marzilli’s sacrifice bunt before Merrifield came through with his line drive. USC closer Matt Price (5-1) picked up the win with 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
The team erupted out of the dugout with Merrifield’s hit, which capped a season that got better and better as it went along. The Gamecocks went 11-1 in the NCAA tournament and seemed to have a new hero every day. For senior ace Blake Cooper, who threw 300 pitches in three games in the CWS, which included the win over UCLA in Game 1 of the title series, the season could only have had one conclusion.
“No other way,” Cooper said. “Like I said before, our team has been battled-tested all year and I knew that’s what it was going to come down to tonight. It’s a perfect storybook ending for me.”
Senior catcher Kyle Enders, who caught every inning in all seven CWS games, felt the exact same way.
“It still really has sunk in yet, but I couldn’t ask for anything more to end my career and win the last game here. I’m thankful for all of my teammates and all the hard work we put in,” Enders said. “I want to say I’m tired but I’m not. I feel good that we won and now we’re national champs.”
Sophomore outfielder Jackie Bradley, who won the CWS MVP award, went hitless Tuesday, but he carried much of the load for most of the tournament with two homers and nine RBIs.
“As a team, we’re just as proud as we can ever be,” Bradley said. “First national championship for baseball and for men’s (athletics) at our whole university. It’s a great feeling.”
Wingo was ecstatic about scoring the final run at Rosenblatt, the one that gave USC its first title.
“I had to get on (base) any way,” he said. “I can’t even describe the words. Unbelievable. We closed this thing out, and we’ll try to open it up next season at the new stadium.”
USC tied the game at 1-1 in the eighth when pinch-hitter Brady Thomas led with a sharp single off reliever Erik Goeddel, who was then replaced by Klein, the right-hander with a team-high 10 saves and 1.85 ERA. Enders got pinch-runner Robert Beary to second on a groundout to third. On the seventh pitch of his at-bat, Bobby Haney hit a hard grounder that first baseman Dean Espy couldn’t handle, and when it bounced off his glove into right-field, Beary steamed around third with the tying run.
Along the way, starter Michael Roth, who allowed just one run in five innings, and relievers Jose Mata, Tyler Webb, John Taylor and Price held the Bruins in check. But even as the Gamecocks struggled to score as well, Tanner never lost faith in his team.
“We did play uphill a lot. I told the guys in the middle of the game that this is who we are. This is the kind of game we win,” he said. “We just kept battling and finally found a way. Whit Merrifield came up with the biggest hit of his career.”
The Bruins took their first lead of the series in the fifth inning. Trevor Brown beat out an infield hit to deep short and moved to second on a sacrifice by Steve Rodriguez. Roth gave up an RBI single to left-center by Niko Gallego to give UCLA a 1-0 lead. Roth, who threw a complete-game gem in a 5-1 win over Clemson, came out after the fifth. He gave the Gamecocks a solid effort by allowing just one run on six hits and one walk with three strikeouts.
But that was all the Bruins would get. And when it counted the most, Merrifield came through.
“It’s been unreal, this whole journey,” Merrifield said. “I’ll be so sad to see these guys go, especially the seniors. I’m just so blessed to be a part of something this special.”
Tanner, who credited the commitment of the USC administration and the athletic department, couldn’t agree more.
“It takes a total team effort to get in this position. I’m not just using words right now,” Tanner said. “Lo and behold, we got here and lost the first game and battled back to become the national champions. I’m so happy for the great state of South Carolina.”