South Carolina 7, Florida 3: Once More, Gators Stare Into College World Series Abyss

Jun 16, 2012; Omaha, NE, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks left fielder Tanner English (3) slides safely into second base in front of Florida Gators short stop Nolan Fontana (4) during the seventh inning of game four of the 2012 College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. Mandatory Credit: Matt Ryerson-US PRESSWIRE
I'm not cocky, I'm confident
So when you tell me I'm the best, it's a compliment

Florida is college baseball's best team this year. These Gators can hit, pitch, field, rip off 18 straight wins against a merciless non-conference schedule, go cold, return to their previous temperature, coast through the NCAA Tournament to earn a trip to Omaha and the College World Series, have nine players taken in the MLB Draft, and generally look like the finest team in the nation and the finest team in school history.

The Gators can do everything, it seems, except beat South Carolina in Omaha.

Florida fell again to the Gamecocks, dropping a 7-3 game as Saturday night bled into Sunday morning, losing for the third straight game to South Carolina after being swept in the College World Series final last June. The Gators came from ahead to do it, taking a 2-0 lead before losing it two innings later in a disastrous five-run fifth (Florida's second inning of five runs in the field this year, joining a similarly nightmarish inning against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament), rallying to close.the gap to 5-3 before coughing up two runs in the top of the ninth on errors to make the rally attempt in the bottom of the frame seem academic at best.

It's all enough to make fans, and maybe players, feel cursed. If these Gators are passing through their most magnificent stretch as a collegiate program, why can't they beat a team with less talent — and why does that team have to be one of the five others in Florida's own division?

Florida's seemed dominant at some points in 2012, but rarely cocky. Mike Zunino and Hudson Randall and Preston Tucker are too low-key for that, and Kevin O'Sullivan's tight ship — his players are the only Gators who have been virtually nonexistent on social media all year — doesn't leave much room for those who would puff chests and crow. These Gators know they're good, good enough to compete in the rugged SEC, good enough to get to Omaha, probably good enough to win a national championship.

But they do not seem to know the unknowable, to believe that they will win instead of believing merely that they can. South Carolina doesn't have that problem.

These Gamecocks have made one of the best runs in the history of college baseball, and certainly of the sport's modern era; Saturday's win was their 22nd straight in the NCAA Tournament, and the 11th straight in the College World Series. The Gamecocks' last loss in NCAA Tournament play was their first game of the 2010 College World Series, a 4-3 loss to Oklahoma that sent South Carolina to the losers' half of the bottom bracket of that year's CWS. All the 'Cocks did then was run off four straight wins — one against national No. 1 Arizona State, two against hated rival Clemson — to get to a championship series against UCLA, which they swept. In their last 28 NCAA Tournament games, the Gamecocks have just that one loss.

(For perspective, Florida could match that feat: All the Gators would have to do is win out at this year's College World Series, not lose at all in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, and win every game in the 2014 NCAA Tournament through the first game of the College World Series.)

That's success on a level that breeds unnatural, irrational confidence. Sometimes, that makes the difference.

Star-divide

Baseball is a macro-scale sport decided by micro-scale events. Only baseball doesn't have a clock, and could theoretically be played ad infinitum; only baseball cannot, if played properly, end in a tie. Someone must win; someone must be better; someone must get the edge in the small moments that produce or concede runs.

On Satursunday, that was South Carolina. Tucker's shot to left escaped the reach of Tanner English early, scoring Florida's first two runs, but the Gamecocks scarcely made a mistake after that.

Florida's, by contrast, were nearly endless.

  • Brian Johnson walked the bases loaded on four pitches in the fifth and was left in.

  • Johnson gave up a bases-clearing double on a 2-2 count to the next batter and was left in.
  • Johnson gave up another double, was finally taken out. and Greg Larson could not stop the runner from scoring.
  • Zunino swung at a 1-1 pitch and only lifted a sac fly with runners on second and third and one out in the bottom of the fifth.
  • Nolan Fontana laid down a sac bunt instead of swinging away with runners on first and second in the seventh.
  • Vickash Ramjit, possibly hurt on a single, failed to bolt home on a possible sac fly.
  • Keenan Kish was kept in until the ninth, and after being wild enough to walk the leadoff man.
  • Steven Rodriguez threw a run-scoring wild pitch, then committed a throwing error.
  • Ramjit committed another throwing error that led to a final run.
  • Jeff Moyer was pinch-hit for Josh Tobias, who had two hits on the night.

Taken separately, any of those mistakes could have killed Florida. (Sticking with Johnson one inning after having Larson warming in a less tricky spot is likely the biggest error of the night, and belongs to O'Sullivan.) Taken together, they assured death by a thousand cuts to a South Carolina team that thrives on making the little plays its foes don't.

Star-divide

The Gators are not dead yet: They have a Monday elimination game against a Kent State team that was overwhelmed by Arkansas earlier on Saturday, and, with a win, would see either Arky or South Cack in another elimination game, and then have to take two more against the other one with another win. Florida still has more talent than all of the teams on its side of the bracket, and probably more than any other team in Omaha, and the Gators have Hudson Randall, Monday's starter, Jonathon Crawford, and Karsten Whitson available as live arms.

There is hope left for the Orange and Blue, a chance that these Gators of the diamond will still be the first to hoist a national championship trophy.

But hope is not confidence.

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