Editor's Note: This article was written after the 2010 College World Series title won by South Carolina. The Gamecocks just won the CWS this year with two victories over Florida this week.
By Michael Austin, Editor-in-Chief
The rain continued to cascade down on Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series (CWS), on June 20, 2010. Oklahoma and South Carolina, playing in their opening game of the double-elimination tournament, had to deal with two lengthy rain delays. One delay lasted four hours before the first pitch while the second delay disrupted play in the sixth inning for another two hours. Exhausted and mentally drained, the loser of this contest was sure to be at a disadvantage when having to take the field two days later with the season the line.
Oklahoma knocked off South Carolina, 4-3, in that game and, worse yet for the Gamecocks, the team lost with its ace pitcher, Blake Cooper (13-2, 2.76 ERA), on the hill. To add insult to injury, South Carolina now was forced to face national No. 1 seed Arizona State in an elimination game after the Sun Devils were surprised by Clemson in their opener.
No ace pitcher…an emotional, gut-wrenching loss…facing the top team in the tournament in their next contest — the odds were stacked against South Carolina. Despite the long odds, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner found a way to manage his disjointed pitching staff and rally his team with a series of smart, timely decisions. At the end of the final game ever played at Rosenblatt Stadium, South Carolina was the last team standing after sweeping two straight games from UCLA, to earn the Gamecocks baseball program (and Tanner) its first national title.
Rain Delay, Loss With Ace On Mound
All baseball coaches have to deal with rain delays. It’s part of the game. Typically, it’s an hour or maybe two of occupying players’ time before hitting the field again. In the College World Series opening game, Tanner says his team spent 12 hours at the stadium, which made it anything but a typical day.
“I wanted to make sure our players had something to eat. Actually, we had to eat twice during the delay. You don’t want to forget about that, then have your players take the field and have low-energy levels after the delay,” Tanner explains. “And, I want my players to be loose and relaxed during a delay. With that much time on their hands, if they are too serious or focused, they are expending a lot of energy. Baseball is a hard enough game as it is, so you want to make sure your players are as comfortable as they can be in a delay. Of course, this was no ordinary delay, and eventually I went over to (Oklahoma coach) Sunny Golloway to ask him what he was doing.”
As mentioned, South Carolina lost with its ace, Cooper, pitching. Tanner says that an important part of being a winning, successful team is to not rely solely on one player.
“We’re a balanced team. Cooper was a great pitcher but we had enough quality starters and a balanced bullpen on our team to remain confident. Sure, I’d love to have 10 first-round draft picks on my team but that’s a dream. When you’re not sitting on a lot of high-round picks, you come together as a team. We didn’t want to be down a game after having Cooper pitch but we certainly didn’t believe our season was over.
“I told our team to continue to respect the game and that some days don’t turn out as you would like them to. We never lost more than two games in a row all season and a lot of that had to do with those players believing that they needed to keep moving forward no matter the circumstances.”
South Carolina’s mental resolve (and offense) came through against national No. 1 Arizona State two days later. With both teams facing elimination, Tanner took the pressure off his squad and placed it squarely on the backs of the Sun Devils.
“Heading into that game I told my players that Arizona State was the No. 1 seed and had all the pressure on them. I kept our guys loose and it seemed to work.” The Gamecocks ended Arizona State’s season with an 11-4 drubbing after building a 10-0 lead into the third inning.
Stealing A Victory
Two days after securing the victory over Arizona State, South Carolina had an opportunity to exact some revenge on Oklahoma in an elimination game after the Sooners had lost to Clemson. Oklahoma looked like it was on its way to a second victory over the Gamecocks in the CWS after grabbing a 2-1 lead in the top of the 12th inning.
“We were down to our last pitch but I kept telling our guys that baseball has a way of evening things out. I wanted them to keep battling,” Tanner says.
Tanner also made a gutsy call in the bottom of the 12th inning. Robert Beary, a junior who only stole three bases all season, led off the frame with a single. Beary then took second on a stolen base.
“We noticed the pitcher seemed slow to the plate and was focusing more on the batter than on Beary,” Tanner says, explaining his thought process of sending the runner. “I decided to roll the dice in this situation. We wanted to win and not play too conservatively.”
With Beary standing on second base, the next two South Carolina batters only managed a strike out and a pop out. Finally, the gamble worked as centerfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr., ripped a hard single into right field to score Beary. A walk moved Bradley to second and he scored on a base hit up the middle to give the Gamecocks a 3-2 win.
Sacrifice, Sticking With Reliever
The victory gave South Carolina a crack at Clemson, a team that had defeated the Gamecocks two out of three times earlier in the season. Tanner’s team rebounded by knocking off the Tigers, 5-1, then 4-3, to earn a trip to the College World Series finals against mighty UCLA.
Tanner didn’t have too many situational decisions to make in the first contest against the Bruins as he simply gave the ball to his ace, Cooper, and let him do the rest. Cooper threw eight innings of three-hit ball and struck out 10 batters to move South Carolina within one win of the title.
It was at this point that Tanner made a curious pitching decision for Game 2 against UCLA. He opted to start Michael Roth on the mound. At the time, Roth was a reliever who had only started one game in the last 14 months. Roth’s previous start came three days earlier against Clemson in which he delivered a complete-game three-hitter.
“Against Clemson, it was our in-state, arch rival on the national stage with the season on the line. Everyone had a little bit more nerves than normal going into that game. What we needed was a calming influence who was smart enough to handle this situation. Roth is very calm by nature and has a 3.9 GPA in international business, so I asked him to start the game and get us under control.
“I thought he might be able to give us three innings. I never suspected he could go five or six and all nine never entered my mind. But, he did it. He calmed us down. I looked for that same mentality against UCLA.”
While he didn’t deliver a complete game against UCLA, Roth provided Tanner’s Gamecocks with five innings of one-run baseball.
Another pitching decision paid off for Tanner in this game as he stuck with a freshman reliever (Matt Price) through extra innings despite his struggling through a bases-loaded jam in the ninth. Despite throwing a lot of pitches and seemingly not having his best stuff, Tanner sent Price back to the mound in the 10th and 11th innings.
“Down the final stretch of our season, he was our best pitcher, so I just had to trust him. He was our closer for the final three to four weeks of the season and just got on a roll. I decided to go with the hot hand even after his struggles in the ninth,” Tanner says.
A final decision, this one on the base paths, cleared the way for Tanner to celebrate his first national title. In the bottom of the 11th, junior infielder Scott Wingo led off with a walk. Tanner then called for a sacrifice bunt in the hopes of moving Wingo into scoring position with one out. Before a bunt could be laid down, UCLA committed a passed ball, which advanced Wingo to second. With the championship-winning run on second and nobody out, Tanner again called for the sacrifice bunt.
“At a different point in the season, I normally do not bunt in that situation. I had a lefty up and I probably would have let him swing away,” Tanner says. “But, in that situation with what was at stake, I wanted the batter to get the ball down and force the defense to make a play at first base.”
The sacrifice worked, Wingo moved up to third and eventually scored on a single past the pulled-in outfield to give South Carolina a 2-1 victory.
Tanner, who earned his first head-coaching job at N.C. State at the ripe age of 27, says his coaching style has changed in his 29 years on the bench (including seven as an assistant).
“As a young coach, I was a lot more high-strung. I learned it’s hard to be an effective teacher like that. Now, I try to be much more patient with players,” Tanner explains.
Focusing on the coach as a teacher, Tanner also says that he has shortened his baseball practices as he has gained experience.
“At most we are going two hours and 15 minutes but we generally keep practices right at two hours. Think about it — a college class ranges from 50 to 75 minutes. Baseball needs to be treated like a class and not a job. Players aren’t necessarily learning more when you simply require them to be on the field for more hours.”
And, for the time his players are on the field, Tanner keeps them focused. He says he takes all baseball situations and breaks them down by percentage of what actually occurs in a game. He doesn’t waste a lot of time on circumstances that rarely arise and opts to focus on fundamentals, defense and offense.
“Pick a fundamental and practice it for that day. You should also make basic offensive and defensive situations a part of your everyday routine. Don’t overload your players. They play baseball for the fun and love of the game. Allow them to enjoy their experiences while also learning on the field.”
As for entering the upcoming season as the defending champs, Tanner says his team is not going to ignore what happened last year and plans to embrace it.
“We already are back at work and, yes, this is a new season. But, the way we played last year definitely gives us confidence heading into this season,” Tanner explains. “I want to use that confidence to our advantage. I want our players believing we can do it again. It’s going to be a great challenge.”