Commentary

Gamecocks close Blatt with classic

Originally Published: June 30, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- They won't start tearing down the steel rafters and concrete of Rosenblatt Stadium until sometime later this year.

A minor league baseball team still has games scheduled here this summer, and a United Football League franchise is set to begin play here this fall.

[+] EnlargeScott Wingo
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOnce Scott Wingo touched home plate in the bottom of the 11th inning, South Carolina could celebrate its first College World Series championship.

But for all intents and purposes, the curtains fell at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium shortly before 11 p.m. CT Tuesday.

After hosting the College World Series every season for the past 61 years, the old ballpark hosted its final college baseball game on Tuesday night. The CWS moves to a new $130 million stadium in downtown Omaha next year, where it will be played for at least the next two decades.

But before the College World Series moved to its sparkling new home, the baseball gods scripted a fitting end for Rosenblatt Stadium, the place that somehow became the mecca for aluminum bats and the NCAA's double-elimination tournament.

Needing one victory to win its first national championship in baseball, South Carolina rallied for a run to tie UCLA in the bottom of the eighth inning, then won 2-1 on right fielder Whit Merrifield's RBI single in the 11th.

It was the first CWS championship game decided in extra innings since 1970 and seemed to pack as much drama into 4 hours, 15 minutes as any game played here in the past six decades.

"This game was special," UCLA coach John Savage said. "This game was as good as it gets at this level. The national championship is supposed to be played like that."

Although it might have been more fitting for blue-blood programs such as LSU, Southern California or Texas to close out the last College World Series at Rosenblatt, the upstart Bruins and Gamecocks produced a game that wasn't decided until the very last at-bat.

"I know the new stadium will be very special and a great facility," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "But this is history. We'll be a part of the College World Series and Rosenblatt for a long, long time. It's an incredible journey and an incredible ending."

South Carolina fans won't forget Tuesday night's victory anytime soon. It's the school's first national championship in any men's sport and the first in baseball after more than 100 years.

"This is the dream of dreams to be able to compete at this level and to be national champions and the best in the country," South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman said. "This is a moment we'll remember for the rest of our lives. This is a defining moment. This shows everyone that we can."

For a long time Tuesday night, it seemed as if the Gamecocks would have to wait another night to celebrate. After beating the Bruins by a 7-1 score Monday night, South Carolina couldn't muster much offense against UCLA starter Rob Rasmussen.

The Gamecocks left the bases loaded in the second and stranded 14 runners in the game. In fact, they went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position until Merrifield delivered his big hit in the 11th.

"It was very hairy there for a while," Tanner said. "I didn't know if we were ever going to scratch, and we were able to tie the thing up and push it to extra innings. But it really was who we were this year. And to have an extra-inning, 2-1 game end this way is magnificent."

After taking a 1-0 lead on shortstop Niko Gallego's RBI single in the fifth inning, the Bruins made it within five outs of forcing a winner-take-all game on Wednesday night.

But then the Gamecocks finally scratched their way onto the scoreboard against Bruins closer Dan Klein in the eighth. Pinch hitter Brady Thomas led off the inning with a single, and pinch runner Robert Beary moved to second on a groundout.

With one out, shortstop Bobby Haney slapped a grounder to first, and Dean Espy muffed the ball into right field, allowing Beary to score from second to tie the score at 1-1. When the inning ended, Espy slammed his fist into a dugout bench in disgust, injuring his hand, and he had to leave the game.

"South Carolina just wouldn't give us anything," Savage said. "We just couldn't knock the door down and get a couple of runs early. It might have been the difference in the game. It would have gotten us to Game 3."

It would only get worse for UCLA from there. The Bruins, who also were seeking their first national championship in baseball, loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the ninth. But South Carolina closer Matt Price struck out leadoff man Gallego on three pitches to end the threat.

"I've seen [Price] do that before," Tanner said. "When you've got the stuff that Matt does, he's going to make some pitches. And it's not easy to lay off, especially in that situation."

In the bottom of the 11th, South Carolina second baseman Scott Wingo faced a full count against Klein, one of the best closers in the country this season. Tanner was so impressed by Klein's repertoire of four pitches that he gave Wingo a sign to push a bunt up the third-base line. Instead, Wingo drew a walk and moved to second on a passed ball.

"I have never done that in my career," Tanner said. "I just felt they had moved back to third. In that situation, with Klein out there pitching as well as he was, I kept thinking it might be easier to push the ball toward third base than it would be to get a hit. Wingo gave me a double take, a triple take, and he got a pitch low."

[+] EnlargeRay Tanner
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesRay Tanner and the Gamecocks emerged the victors in a classic performance in Rosenblatt Stadium's final College World Series game.

After left fielder Evan Marzilli moved Wingo to third with a perfect sacrifice bunt, Merrifield drove Klein's 2-0 pitch into right field to bring home the winning run.

Merrifield said he was surprised the Bruins didn't elect to walk him and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to load the bases for a potential double play to end the threat.

"When I saw the catcher squat down, I knew I had something to prove," Merrifield said. "In that situation, you're trying to get a pitch elevated. You're trying to drive it deep into the outfield. I worked the count in my favor and got a fastball. Even though it was kind of down, I got the barrel on it and it finally went the other way and shot into the gap."

With one swing of the bat, Merrifield closed the chapter on South Carolina's frustrating near misses in Omaha (the Gamecocks had finished second here three times since 1975).

And then college baseball said goodbye to the place every program in the country had yearned to go every season since 1950.

Shortly after the Gamecocks were handed their national championship trophy, and after fireworks were launched from behind the green wall in center field, a lone trumpeter stood at home plate, playing a slower version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Beginning next year, the College World Series will be played only a few miles down the road.

But it might never feel the same outside of the Blatt.

"Without question, it's very, very special," Tanner said. "To be able to survive and win the last game is really incredible."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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