South Carolina beats Liberty 6-4 to win regional
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — First-year South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook felt an increased energy in the Gamecocks dugout at the NCAA tournament’s Columbia Regional that he hadn’t seen all year.
“I got kind of mad, to be honest with you,” Holbrook said. “We played a lot of important games before this. Why now?”
Because it’s the NCAA tournament. And few teams are better at home in the postseason the past decade than the Gamecocks, who won their 27th straight on their home field Monday in defeating Liberty 6-4 and reaching the best-of-3 super regional round for the fourth straight season.
The streak began in 2002 at defunct Sarge Frye Field with a five-run rally in the ninth to oust baseball power Miami. After 10 additional victories at “The Sarge,” the success moved over to $36.5 million Carolina Stadium the past four seasons with 16 more victories.
“They’re near impossible to beat here,” Liberty second baseman Bryan Aanderud said.
The Gamecocks (42-18) hope they get a chance to keep that going in the supers. The Columbia Regional champion was matched with the Chapel Hill Regional winner hosted by the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in North Carolina.
The Tar Heels, though, have a deciding game Monday evening against Florida Atlantic. A win by the Owls would mean more baseball where the Gamecocks like it best — at home. Holbrook saw that up close in 2003 as a North Carolina assistant when the Gamecocks beat the Tar Heels two straight to advance to the College World Series. He got an even better look since leaving his alma mater to join Ray Tanner’s staff in 2009. As the Gamecocks head coach, Holbrook’s glad he’s on the right side of whatever mojo the program has going here.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in the position to play at home and sometimes it seems like our fans won’t let us lose.”
Designated hitter LB Dantzler drove in two runs Sunday as South Carolina built a 4-2 lead before the suspension.
Liberty (36-29) did what it could to end the streak when the game, which had been suspended because of rain Sunday night, resumed in the middle of the fifth. After the Gamecocks moved in front 6-2 on RBI hits by Graham Saiko and Tanner English, the Flames rallied with runs in the eighth and ninth. They had two on and two out when reliever Tyler Webb struck out Justin Sizemore to end things.
Liberty needed to win this to force a deciding final game, yet the Big South Conference tournament champs came up short.
“I thought there was a chance,” Liberty coach Jim Toman said. “I thought it could happen tonight.”
Liberty did win twice over South Carolina’s rival, Clemson, and ended a 13-year drought between NCAA tournament victories.
The Flames, though, struggled to hold down the Gamecocks, who won a winner’s bracket contest Saturday night between the schools, 19-3.
Colby Holmes (5-2) was on the mound when the game was halted last night and returned for just three batters Monday, but still picked up the victory. Webb earned his 17th save.
South Carolina reached the super regionals for the 11th time in the 14 years the NCAA’s held the format. Only Florida State has played in more super regionals.
Holbrook had been under a big microscope much of the season with fans waiting to see if he could duplicate the success of Tanner, who won the College World Series in 2010 and 2011, and finished second in Omaha last year. The journey hasn’t always been easy, Holbrook said, but has a taken a familiar direction.
Holbrook says he’s been embraced by former South Carolina players who he never coached. “It’s a special, special program,” Holbrook said. “It means a heck of a lot that we get to play at home. You don’t want to finish playing in the super regional, you want to keep going. And we’re two wins away from playing in the College World Series.”