OMAHA, Neb. — When it comes to in-state rival Clemson, South Carolina considers any win over the Tigers to be a great win.
This one was greater yet.
South Carolina beat the Tigers for the second night in a row Saturday, staving off elimination from the College World Series a fourth straight time with a 4-3 victory that sends the Gamecocks to the best-of-three finals against UCLA starting Monday.
Christian Walker homered and singled in the go-ahead run in the seventh inning for South Carolina, and he made a big defensive play at first base to end the game.
“A couple days ago we were down to one strike and planning a trip home,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. “Now we’re going to have a chance to play for a national championship. That’s incredible. It’s a never-say-die team.”
Only 130 miles separate the campuses of Clemson and South Carolina, and they’ve met 292 times on the baseball field since 1899. No matter the sport, it is one of the fiercest rivalries in the nation.
Not much separated the teams Saturday. Clemson (45-25) had eight hits and South Carolina (52-16) nine. Clemson left nine runners on base, South Carolina left 10. Each starting pitchers went into the seventh inning and had similar numbers.
Clemson beat the Gamecocks two out of three games in the regular season and came to Omaha as the only non-No. 1 regional seed.
“I don’t think it matters who we lose to to end our season,” second baseman Mike Freeman said. “We lost to a really good opponent, that’s the bottom line. Regardless of who it is, it’s never fun to lose. So it doesn’t make it any worse. They’re going to represent our region, represent our state well. All we can do now is cheer for them in the end and hope they bring it back for South Carolina.”
The Gamecocks, three-time national runners-up, last played for the title in 2002 after knocking Clemson out of the CWS.
They’ll play for it all after battling back from a 4-3 loss to Oklahoma in its CWS opener. The Gamecocks rode an eight-run second inning to an 11-4 win over Arizona State, then beat Oklahoma 3-2 in 12 innings, rallying for two runs after being down to their last strike.
They set up a second Bracket 2 final with Friday’s 5-1 win over Clemson in which Michael Roth, who usually comes out of the bullpen to face one or two batters, pitched a complete-game, three-hitter in his first start in 14 months.
“I said from the beginning it was nice to get to Omaha, but we wanted to do something here,” right fielder Whit Merrifield said. “We’re in position to do something this program never accomplished. We know we have to play well to beat UCLA, and we’re looking forward to two more big games and scrapping across two more big wins.”
Walker broke a 2-2 tie in the seventh after Clemson intentionally walked Jackie Bradley, who had knocked in nine runs in four CWS games. Walker sent Alex Frederick’s 3-1 pitch up the middle, scoring Evan Marzilli from third base.
Adrian Morales followed with a single through the right side to put South Carolina up 4-2.
“They walked Jackie before me, so I wanted to prove myself in that situation to show I could get the job done,” Walker said.
Gamecocks reliever Matt Price (4-1) allowed one run in 2 1-3 innings. Clemson’s Casey Harman (8-4) took the loss.
Saturday’s game was delayed about five minutes in the eighth inning after Merrifield collided with second baseman Scott Wingo as they tried to catch John Hinson’s short fly. The ball dropped, and Hinson wound up with a triple and scored on a groundout to get Clemson within a run.
Merrifield was bowled over by Wingo and needed time to regain his bearings. He also cut his mouth and had a bloody nose but stayed in the game.
The Gamecocks had to withstand some nervous moments in the ninth after left fielder Marzilli overran Freeman’s foul ball near the bullpen. Had he made the catch, the game would have been over then. Freeman, the tying run, singled on the next pitch.
But Walker, whose homer broke a 1-1 tie in the fourth, made a terrific stop on Jeff Schaus’ hard grounder toward first. Walker stepped on the bag and started celebrating, leaving Kyle Parker, who has 20 home runs, in the on-deck circle.
“I still see Marzilli falling over the (bullpen) pitcher’s mound down there. He said to me after the game, ‘Who put that mound there all of a sudden?'” Tanner said. “Then you’ve got Kyle Parker waiting in the wings. If that ball gets past Christian over there, he’s sitting there waiting again.”
Eric Olson/The Associated Press