OMAHA, Neb. – Arizona came to the College World Series as one of the hottest teams in the nation and swept three straight games to reach the championship round.
Yet coach Andy Lopez and his players know few outside their fan base are paying much attention to them as the best-of-three series starts today (5 p.m., ESPN2).
That’s because South Carolina (49-18) has completed an improbable run to the finals, where it will try to become the first team in 40 years to win a third straight title.
“We’re just excited to be invited to the Ray Tanner Invitational,” Lopez said Saturday.
At that, Tanner, the Gamecocks’ 16th-year coach, playfully punched Lopez to open their pre-finals news conference.
“We’ve got a pretty good team,” Tanner said, “but we’re not the ’27 Yankees. We’ve had 28 one-run games. We know that every at-bat is crucial for us.
“We’ve got the chance to play in the finals a third time in a row. It’s hard to wrap your arms around that. You just have to have some good luck and fortune along the way, a couple clutch performances along the way.”
The last program to show as much dominance as the Gamecocks was Southern California, which won five straight championships from 1970-74.
Sophomore right-hander Konner Wade (10-3), who threw a complete-game five-hit shutout against UCLA last Sunday, will be the Game 1 starter for Arizona (46-17).
The Gamecocks will send Forrest Koumas (2-2) to the mound against an Arizona team that is fourth in the nation in batting (.330) and sixth in scoring (7.4 runs a game).
“Most of the time I’ll get a guy or two that kind of gets to me and says I really want the ball,” Tanner said with a smile. “But since they’ve watched these guys hit, I’m not getting those guys. They’re avoiding me. All the pitchers are going in a different direction.”
For all the roster turnover, the Gamecocks found stability in their pitching staff.
Michael Roth, a senior left-hander, is 4-0 and has a 1.34 career ERA in the CWS. Junior left-hander Tyler Webb and closer Matt Price also have pitched three straight years in the CWS. Those two combined for seven shutout innings in the decisive 3-2 win over Arkansas on Friday, with Price closing the game for his CWS-record fifth career win in Omaha.
Arizona has won nine straight games, including all eight in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will be trying for their fourth national title but first since 1986.
Lopez won a national title at Pepperdine in 1992 and brought Florida to the CWS in 1996 and ’98. He’s back in Omaha in his eighth season at Arizona.
The pitching staff is led by the durable and dependable Kurt Heyer (13-1). The junior leads the nation in wins, and his 1542/3 innings are the most by an NCAA Division I pitcher since 2006.
The Wildcats have just 22 home runs, but they hit into gaps, move runners over and score in bunches. Seven starters are batting .324 or higher.