Mid-majors that have invested in their programs are making the road to the College World Series a lot bumpier for the traditional powers.
The unpredictability is great for fans but not so much for the elite programs that used to write trips to Omaha, Neb., on their schedules in pen rather than pencil.
“Athletic departments and athletic directors are recognizing that baseball is the least expensive opportunity to win a national championship that is televised nationally,” said Texas’ Augie Garrido, the all-time winningest coach in Division I. “In football, these smaller schools aren’t going to have a chance to dance with the giants. In baseball, the parity is extreme.”
Texas has played in a nation-leading 55 NCAA baseball tournaments since 1947 but didn’t make it this year for the first time in 14 years.
Two-time defending national champion South Carolina, 2011 national runner-up Florida and Stanford are among the usual suspects still alive. But familiar names like North Carolina, Virginia and Miami are not after being among the six No. 1 regional seeds to go down this past weekend.
Mid-American Conference champion Kent State (44-17) will be in a super regional for the first time when it plays a best-of-three series at Oregon beginning Saturday.
Same with Big East champion St. John’s (40-21), which goes to Arizona, and America East champ Stony Brook (50-12), which visits Louisiana State University. Those series start Friday.
Mid-majors have benefited from the two-year-old NCAA rule allowing only 27 of the 35 players on a roster to get a cut of a team’s 11.7 total scholarships. Each of those 27 players must receive at least a 25-percent scholarship.
Another factor is the toned-down aluminum bats. They’ve neutralized the teams that once dominated with bigger and stronger athletes.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Adam Matthews is finally in the middle of things during South Carolina’s latest NCAA Tournament run.
The Gamecocks’ senior outfielder had an RBI single in a three-run first as South Carolina won its NCAA regional and its 19th consecutive tournament game with a 4-3 victory over Clemson on Sunday.
Matthews, who missed last year’s run to the Gamecocks’ second consecutive College World Series title with a hamstring problem, caught the final out on Brad Felder’s flyball to the warning track in right center and was voted regional MVP.
Matthews played 64 games as a sophomore, but wasn’t among the team’s established stars that won the 2010 title in Omaha.
“The past couple of years have been frustrating not being able to be part of the postseason,” Matthews said. “This year, it’s an honor to play in front of our fans at home and be able to contribute in a big way.”
Matthews has contributed plenty in the regional. He drove in three runs in a 7-0 win over Manhattan on Friday. He had a two-run homer against the rival Tigers in South Carolina’s come-from-behind, 12-inning 5-4 victory Saturday.
This time, Matthews helped the Gamecocks jump on tiring starter David Haselden (4-2) in a three-run first. Joey Pankake opened with a triple and scored on Evan Marzilli’s sacrifice fly. Matthews hit brought home Christian Walker before Connor Bright’s double scored Matthews as South Carolina moved in front 3-0. Chase Vergason’s RBI single in the sixth made it 4-0 before Clemson rallied to make it close.
Thomas Brittle had an RBI double and Phil Pohl a run-scoring groundout to third to cut South Carolina’s lead to 4-2 in the sixth. The Tigers made things interesting in the ninth when Spencer Kieboom’s single to right brought home Jay Baum and sent up Felder, who hammered a ball out of the stadium on Saturday. He drove this one a long way, too, but not so that Matthews couldn’t run it down.
“I couldn’t hear Evan (Marzilli), saying, ‘You got it. You got it. You got it.’ It would’ve been bad if he was saying, ‘I got it. I got it. I got it.’”
Freshman Jordan Montgomery (5-1) went 6 2/3 solid innings, retiring 12 straight during one stretch. Tyler Webb, called “soft” by a Clemson player last year, got the final seven outs for his third save.
Webb brushed off last year’s insult by former Tiger Will Lamb as motivation. Still, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner knew this was a game Webb wanted to finish.
“I’m good. Don’t come get me,” Tanner said Webb told him before the ninth.
Clemson hoped Felder might have enough on the last out, but knew it would come up short.
“It’s a pretty deflating feeling,” said Clemson third baseman Richie Shaffer, a junior likely to go in the first round of Monday’s MLB draft. “You watch it sailing through the air and hope he trips on a rock or something.”
South Carolina’s celebration was simple and without too much emotion despite it being the fourth win in five games with Clemson this season.
“It was another one of those great baseball games we tend to have with Clemson,” Tanner said.
The Gamecocks were a whisker away from the loser’s bracket, trailing the Tigers 4-2 entering the eighth inning on Saturday’s game. But a run each in the eighth and ninth send that contest to extras and LB Dantzler’s RBI single off the wall gave them the 5-4 win.
South Carolina appeared ready to blow this one open after its first inning outburst until the Tigers, who needed a 5-3 victory over Coastal Carolina earlier Sunday simply to stay alive, settled down under reliever Jonathan Meyer, who limited the Gamecocks to five hits the final 8 1/3 innings.
It was just enough to prevail against Clemson (35-28), again. The Gamecocks have won 18 of the last 25 in the series with their state rivals.
“We’ve got to get one hit better, one pitch better, one more piece of execution better,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “That’s the difference.”
That seems to be what all of South Carolina’s postseason opponents need to do. The Gamecocks haven’t lost an NCAA tournament game since their opener to Oklahoma at the 2010 College World Series. They haven’t lost a home tournament game since the 2002 super regional series against Miami, a string of 22 consecutive wins.
It’s quite an edge, both the Clemson and South Carolina sides agreed, for the Gamecocks to play at home, where they enjoyed their 13th sellout of the season and second against Clemson in as many days.
“Being able to play at home, the fans are great,” Matthews said. “It’s been a heck of a weekend and hopefully we can continue.”