Published November 20, 2014
South Carolina's Christian Walker didn't know until a half-hour before the first pitch whether he would even be able to play in Game 1 of the College World Series finals.
After his adventurous run from first base to home in the 11th inning Monday night, the Gamecocks are one win away from their second straight national championship.
Two throwing errors allowed Walker to score the tie-breaking run in a 2-1 victory over Florida that looked a lot like the Gamecocks' dramatic 13-inning win over Virginia on Friday.
Walker was determined not to miss it.
"I knew it was going to take a lot of pain for me not to play," Walker said. "For the last half of yesterday, I didn't think I was going to be able to."
Game 2 in the best-of-three finals between the Southeastern Conference rivals is Tuesday night.
The Gamecocks won their 15th consecutive NCAA tournament game and 10th in a row in the CWS, both tied for the longest streaks all-time.
Like they did against Virginia, the Gamecocks (54-14) performed defensive magic late, throwing out two runners at home plate in the bottom of the ninth and another in the 10th.
"In close games like that you just try to keep fighting," said left fielder Jake Williams, whose perfect throw kept Cody Dent from scoring the winning run in the 10th. "You try to make the plays you can make and get someone to move them over and get them in. You've got to do little things in close games like that and hopefully come out in the positive. We've been able to do that."
South Carolina coach Ray Tanner didn't put Walker into the lineup until after he saw Walker hit five home runs in batting practice. Walker is batting .355 to lead the Gamecocks.
Walker, who fractured his left wrist during his last at-bat Friday, singled up the middle to start the 11th — his second hit of the game. Florida catcher Mike Zunino threw into center field as Walker stole second. Walker took off for third and was awarded home after Bryson Smith's throw from the outfield bounced away from Dent and into the stands.
"The most frustrating thing is that we had opportunities to win this game and the team that beat us was ourselves," Florida's Brian Johnson said. "So we just have to come out tomorrow and get ready to play."
John Taylor (8-1) got the win and Matt Price, pitching two days after throwing 95 pitches in 5 2-3 innings against Virginia, earned his 19th save. Nick Maronde (0-1) took the loss — the first in 47 games for Florida (53-18) in which it had led after the seventh inning.
The Gamecocks reached the finals on Friday with a 3-2, 13-inning win over Virginia in which Adam Matthews scored the winning run after Cavaliers reliever Cody Winiarski botched two throws after fielding bunts.
South Carolina survived bases-loaded predicaments in the 10th, 12th and 13th innings on Friday and did it again Monday in the ninth.
Taylor walked Zunino leading off, and Brian Johnson ripped a single after initially trying to move Zunino over with a sacrifice. Taylor intentionally walked Josh Adams to load the bases and set up forces all around.
Tyler Thompson's grounder sent second baseman Scott Wingo diving to his right to make the stop. Wingo got up and threw home, with catcher Robert Beary picking up the low throw in time to get Zunino.
Then Daniel Pigott sent a soft grounder to Wingo. Wingo threw home again, and Beary went to first to finish the double play.
"We were able to get a couple of at-'em balls to keep them from taking the lead, and Jake throws out a guy at the plate," Tanner said. "We were just very fortunate to be able to win tonight."
Dent singled leading off the bottom of the 10th against Taylor and moved up on Nolan Fontana's sacrifice bunt. Taylor intentionally walked the left-handed Preston Tucker to get a righty-righty matchup against the slumping Zunino.
Zunino drove a hot grounder into left for what looked like the game-winning hit. But Williams picked it up and came up throwing. Beary caught the ball on a line in plenty of time, then shuffled to his right to tag out Dent and start a celebration in the Gamecocks' dugout.
"They're the defending national champs for a reason," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said.
The loss spoiled a brilliant performance by Florida starter Hudson Randall, who has now allowed one run or less in 10 of his 19 starts this season. He left with two out in the eighth after having allowed just three hits.
Randall retired 10 straight hitters from the fourth to seventh innings and 18 of 19 during one stretch before the Gamecocks got to him, tying it on Wingo's single up the middle.
Wingo slapped Randall's 2-2 pitch right back at the pitcher to break an 0-for-9 slump. Randall swiped at the ball with his glove and then pumped his right fist in frustration as it rolled into center field and Peter Mooney scored.
Randall said the ball tipped his glove.
"I just didn't get it down in time," he said.
Florida manufactured its run in the third after South Carolina starter Forrest Koumas walked Thompson to start the inning. Thompson went to second on a groundout and to third on Koumas' wild pitch before scoring on Dent's sacrifice fly.
Tanner said he doesn't expect Monday's win to mean anything in Game 2.
"I think momentum is important if the other team isn't as good as you are," he said. "That's not the case here."