So Close, Yet So Far


by - Correspondent -
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OMAHA, Neb. - After a long, seemingly endless uphill climb, the South Carolina Gamecocks finally are just a step away from the summit.

Carolina completed a scintillating run through the winner's bracket with a 10-2 win over Clemson Friday at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. The win - USC's second over the Tigers in three days and fourth straight win since falling into the loser's bracket eight days ago - advances the Gamecocks to today's national championship game (1:30 p.m. EDT) against Texas.

It also ends Clemson's season on the worst possible note:

Being bounced out of the CWS on back-to-back losses to its hated rival, when a single victory would have eliminated South Carolina.

Instead, South Carolina will play in the title game for the third time in school history (1975, 1977), while Clemson still searches for its first opportunity.

"After the first game (11-0 loss to Georgia Tech) people were laughing at us," South Carolina shortstop Drew Meyer said. "After that game we got together and decided we wanted to extend our stay in Omaha. And that's just it. We're playing solid as a team."

The team aspect has been prevalent throughout the entire College World Series, but was never more evident than Friday.

With the top of the batting order continuing to struggle, the 6-9 hitters in the USC lineup went 9-for-18 with nine RBI, three doubles and five runs scored. Ninth-place hitter Kevin Melillo had his best game of the season - two singles, a double and a career-high three RBI.

Asked about the performance of that part of the lineup, Tanner jokingly rephrased the question.

"Are you saying they should be at the top of the order?," he said amid much laughter. "They did a super job. These guys can play. It's great for the guys up and down the lineup to produce. It helps the entire team."

Garris Gonce, who also had three hits and drove in two runs, said such a contribution is an extension of the way USC has played all season.

"We pick each other up. It seems like it's a different hero every game," he said.

Then, sporting a wide grin, he added:

"Hopefully (leadoff hitter) Drew (Meyer) and (third-place hitter) Yaron (Peters) will show up tomorrow."

The easygoing, festive mood was in direct contrast to that of Clemson. Up 2-0 in the CWS and in the driver's seat, the Tigers were outscored 22-6 in two games by the Gamecocks.

It got so bad that shortstop Khalil Greene, Clemson's consensus Player of the Year, committed three errors, the first of which led to two unearned runs that gave South Carolina a 5-0 lead in the third inning and, simultaneously, spelled the end of Tigers' starter Matt Henrie (13-5).

Henrie had given up three runs in the second inning - two on a single from Landon Powell and the third on Melillo's base hit - but appeared to have settled down in the third. He retired the first two batters of the inning, then induced Trey Dyson to ground routinely to Greene at short.

But Greene's throw to first was low and handcuffed first baseman Michael Johnson, allowing Dyson to reach. Gonce followed with a single that moved Dyson around to third, and moments later he scored on Henrie's wild pitch.

Brian Buscher then followed with an RBI single to make it 5-0, prompting head coach Jack Leggett to pull Henrie in favor of B.J. LaMura.

"There's not much to say. We got beat in all three phases of the game," Leggett said. "They really took advantage of any mistakes we made."

Meanwhile, USC starter Steven Bondurant (7-4) was cruising.

He escaped his only serious jam of the afternoon by leaving the bases loaded in the third after Clemson's Jeff Baker's RBI single cut the lead to 5-1. His seven strikeouts tied a career high, and he limited the Tigers to just four hits through the first eight innings.

Clemson mounted a two-out uprising in the ninth, scoring a run on Zane Green's base hit and loading the bases. But Bondurant got Khalil Green on a harmless fly ball to right to end it, nailing down the complete game and touching off a celebration in the process.

"We knew they were a fastball-hitting team," Tanner said. "We know how they can turn them around. So we spotted the fastball, but tried to get them out with breaking balls and changeups. Steven did an outstanding job."

"I tried to throw changeups and get ahead of the hitters early in the count," Bondurant said. "I tried to keep them off balance."

As if to punctuate the fact that they belong in Omaha, the Gamecocks put the game away with five runs off LaMura and two relievers in the eighth inning. Gonce and Melillo delivered the key hits, each driving in two runs with singles.

By that time the outcome was obvious, and the Gamecocks could begin celebrating.

At least for tonight.

"We'll enjoy this one tonight," Meyer said. "Then we'll come back to the ballpark tomorrow ready to play Texas. But for one night, yeah, we'll enjoy this one."

Clemson, on the other hand, is left to wonder what might have been.

"We felt confident coming into this season, and I don't want the way this game ended to diminish what we accomplished this year," Leggett said. "I really wanted (a national championship appearance) for them, and that's what hurts most:

"Not being able to play for a national championship."

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