Gamecocks still standing in Omaha
OMAHA, Neb. -- Whit Merrifield remembers chasing the ball and failing to call off second baseman Scott Wingo. He doesn't recall the crash that followed.
The South Carolina right fielder collided full speed with Wingo in the eighth inning, then lay in the grass gasping for air and bleeding from the mouth. In the locker room after the game, Wingo showed Merrifield the bite marks he'd left on his elbow.
Merrifield may have been dazed, confused and bloodied, but he knew one thing: he wasn't coming out of the College World Series game against Clemson.
"I would have stayed out there if all my ribs were broken," said Merrifield, who was eager to watch a TV replay of the collision.
Pardon the obvious metaphor, but the Gamecocks as a whole refuse to be knocked out. They advanced to meet UCLA in the championship series beginning Monday by winning four straight elimination games, capped by Saturday's 4-3 victory over the Tigers. South Carolina was down to its final strike in extra innings against Oklahoma on Wednesday night, then had to beat its in-state rival two straight nights to keep playing.
"A couple of days ago we were down to one strike, planning a trip back home," coach Ray Tanner said. "And now just a couple days later, we're going to have an opportunity to play for a national championship. That's incredible. But it's a never-say-die team."
That may be the best explanation for why the Gamecocks are one of only two teams left standing, because they don't have a lot of superstars or big-time sluggers. First baseman Christian Walker -- who had a home run plus a late go-ahead RBI single and a huge defensive play to seal the win -- described the team "as a bunch of role players."
What they do extremely well is pitch and play defense. Over the past three games, South Carolina held opponents to a total of six runs in 30 innings. The heart of Clemson's order -- Jeff Schaus, Kyle Parker and John Hinson -- combined for 52 home runs this season. They went a collective 3-for-21 with one extra-base hit in the two losses. (And that extra-base hit was a Hinson triple, resulting from the Merrifield-Wingo collision on a blooper.)
The Gamecocks cobbled their pitching staff together through all the elimination games, weather delays and extra-inning affairs. They got an unexpected complete-game gem from reliever Michael Roth on Friday. Reliever Matt Price struck out 12 in seven innings over three brilliant games. The defense has been terrific throughout.
UCLA will likely be viewed as the favorite to win the title with its slew of draft picks and electric arms. The Bruins have had a much easier road in Omaha, losing just once and taking their three victories by an average of six runs.
"It's going to be a very difficult assignment for us," Tanner said. "But we get to play."
And as long as the Gamecocks are still playing, they're dangerous. As Merrifield showed, it's hard to knock South Carolina out.
"There's nothing this team isn't ready to take on," he said. "No matter what happens, we'll fight back and do what do what we've done all year long: refuse to lose, scrap and claw and do what we have to do to win."
Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com.