It has been a rematch 19 years in the making.
The 2002 College World Series Championship Game between South Carolina and Texas lived up to its expectations, as the Longhorns earned the 12-6 win for their fifth national title in program history.
Since that game, Texas has won it all in Omaha for the sixth time, while South Carolina has taken a national title back to Columbia twice. The head coaches have changed, the programs have continued to thrive, but even 19 years later, a resemblance to the 2002 NCAA championship game is expected out of the two blue-blood programs as the Gamecocks and Longhorns will meet in Austin this weekend for the first time since 2002.
Entering the matchup, South Carolina is the favorite, though the Gamecocks are on the road, as they have posted an impressive 11-0 record that includes two one-run wins over Clemson on February 27 and 28. South Carolina surged from a preseason ranking of 40 in College Baseball Nation’s Preseason Top 50 to No. 17 in the most recent rankings released on Monday.
Texas has also added a notable non-conference series win to its NCAA Tournament resume, winning a road series over previously 6-1 Houston, 2-1. The #25 Horns have bounced back after starting the year 0-3, and are a respectable 8-5 heading into the weekend.
Texas’ Friday night starter, redshirt sophomore Ty Madden, was a critical part of the series victory, as the junior tossed a complete game, two-hit shutout in game one against the Cougars. He will be South Carolina’s biggest challenge of the series, at least when it comes to pitching, as his velocity hardly dips despite long outings against solid lineups. Facing Houston, he was hitting speeds of 97 and 98 miles per hour in the ninth inning.
The Gamecocks’ power-hitting lineup may pose an even tougher challenge for Madden than his opening day start against Mississippi State three weeks ago, as South Carolina has five hitters in the lineup with at least 12 hits on the season. Catcher/first baseman Wes Clarke leads the nation in home runs with eight and has posted an eye-popping .410 batting average. Clarke is the kind of player opposing pitchers hate to see stepping to the plate in the late innings. In fact, in South Carolina’s 3-2 victory over Clemson on February 27, Clarke was intentionally walked in the 11th inning, which led to a walk-off single in the following at bat.
Aside from Clarke’s prowess at the plate, the Texas pitching staff will not have an easy time against a South Carolina lineup that also boasts center fielder Braylen Wimmer (.382 average), right fielder Brady Allen (16 hits, .381 average) and left fielder Andrew Eyster (15 RBI, .341 average), who had the walk-off single to beat Clemson on February 27.
Against a talented lineup like South Carolina’s, Texas’ pitching will only go so far. The offense, which struggled early in the season but has outscored opponents 26-14 in the last four games, will need to connect at the plate. The Longhorns have less power in the lineup than the Gamecocks, but they win games behind small ball--precise hitting and heads-up baserunning. Center fielder Mike Antico has been Texas’ sparkplug on the basepaths as of late, stealing three bases in Tuesday’s 15-9 victory over Sam Houston State. Additionally, shortstop Trey Faltine has put himself at the center of the recent scoring surge, posting back-to-back two-hit games in last weekend’s series at Houston.
The Gamecocks are sure to counter on the mound, with right-hander Thomas Farr tabbed as the Friday night starter. He enters with an impressive 2-0 record and 1.56 ERA in three starts this season, having reached the sixth inning in all three outings. It goes without saying that Friday night’s duel between Madden and Farr will have a tremendous impact on the series.
Saturday will pit Texas’ Tristan Stevens against South Carolina’s Brannon Jordan. Stevens has had some growing pains early on in his new role as a starter, allowing a team-high 11 hits, which has contributed to a 4.96 ERA. However, in each of his three starts, he has pitched into the sixth inning, giving the Longhorns bullpen a reprieve. Jordan had some minor. early-season struggles on the mound, giving up three and two earned runs in two four-inning starts, but he most recently pitched five shutout innings against Mercer.
Sunday’s 11 a.m. CT showdown will close out, and possibly decide the series, as Texas is set to throw Kolby Kubichek, and South Carolina will likely start left-hander Julian Bosnic. Kubichek has worked his way into the rotation with a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings of work. He is 2-1 on the year, though that loss came at the hands of #5 Ole Miss. Bosnic is 1-0 in two starts, having earned his first win of the season in a 1-0 pitchers duel against Mercer last Sunday. In 10 innings, he has yet to allow a single hit.
Riley's Prediction: This is one of those series that will likely either result in high-scoring duels or rubber matches and there is no telling which will happen. South Carolina enters with a lineup that is hard for any pitching staff to beat, though Texas has a solid bullpen and the starters have proven themselves time and time again. With the Longhorn offense clicking, and the home field advantage aiding in the effort, it would not surprise me to see Texas earn its biggest non-conference series victory of the season. At the same time, I like South Carolina’s chances to win a couple of close contests in Austin. The only prediction I will make is that one team will take two of three, but we will not see a series sweep. After that, there is no telling of what might happen in this long-awaited rematch.