Walker's heroic effort helps Gamecocks down Gators in Game 1
Christian Walker persevered through a broken bone in his hand to star in Game 1
Defending champ South Carolina beat Florida 2-1 for its 15th straight NCAA win
Florida's starter, Hudson Randall, was Greg Maddux-like, albeit in a losing effort
OMAHA, Neb. -- Imagine for a minute a plodding, power-hitting first baseman with a broken bone in his hand, who nevertheless launches home runs in batting practice to force his way into the starting lineup and then delivers a pair of hits that alone would have been the story of the night if not for the improbable way he wins the game with his legs. If that sounds like a superhero -- for a night, at least -- you weren't far off.
That was the tale on Monday of South Carolina sophomore Christian Walker -- the player coincidentally shares a name with a Marvel comic-book protagonist, who counts the baseball-appropriate Diamond among his aliases -- who persevered through a broken hamate bone in his left hand, who was not listed in the original lineup distributed an hour before game time and who in the 11th-inning of the marathon College World Series finals Game 1 singled, stole a base (with a head-first slide, no less) and advanced two more bases on a pair of throwing errors to score the winning run.
"I like to think I play hard," Walker said after the game, "and no matter what's going on, I'm not going to let injury affect how I play."
If you expected more than such an understated even-toned reply, you erred in expectation, for Walker's modesty matched his mettle after a performance that was about as heroic as one can be on a baseball diamond, as the defending champion Gamecocks edged Florida 2-1 to take the first game of the best-of-three final series and tied the 1983-84 Texas teams with 15 consecutive NCAA tournament victories.
Walker, South Carolina's No. 3 hitter and team leader in average (.355) and home runs (10), broke the bone while swinging the bat in his final time up in Friday night's 13-inning marathon victory over Virginia. He took Saturday off, then tried and failed to swing effectively Sunday. An X-ray and CT scan Monday morning confirmed the fracture, and hours before game time two university doctors treated him in a tunnel behind the first-base dugout and told him he really couldn't worsen the injury and that deciding to play was really just a matter of managing the pain.
"I knew it was going to take a lot of pain for me not to play," Walker said, giving profuse thanks to the medical staff.
When Walker -- who batted .588 as a high school senior in Pennsylvania and once bested Bryce Harper in a home-run derby -- finished his B.P. round with a homer off the foul pole, his teammates started to suspect they'd have their slugger.
"That's when I knew he was going to be in there," third baseman Adrian Morales said. "He's a big part of our lineup, so we need him there. Fifty percent of Christian is good."
Every bit counts, as runs in the 2011 college baseball season have been hard to come by. New restrictions on the aluminum the players swing has left the annual June rite of ball in Omaha with a little less ping. South Carolina managed just seven hits in 11 innings and never had two runners simultaneously on base all game, only putting multiple runners on in the eighth when second baseman Scott Wingo singled home shortstop Peter Mooney to tie the game at one apiece.
Of course, Florida's starter had as much to do with that paucity of runs as anything. Hudson Randall, a 6-foot-3 sophomore righthander, has J.J. Putz's red hair and tall frame, Derek Lowe's jerky upright wind-up and sinker and Greg Maddux's control and economy of pitches.
He had little choice over the former, but the latter of the three was deliberate emulation from the Atlanta native, who'd watch the former Braves ace on television and head over to Turner Field when he could. Randall cruised through the first seven innings with two hits and no walks on just 68 pitches -- he threw a shutout of Tennessee earlier in the year in 74 pitches -- before issuing his only walk, a free pass to Mooney to leadoff the eighth.
For much of Monday night Randall even seemed to have the range of Maddux, an 18-time Gold Glover, with five assists and a putout before Wingo's ball bounded just over the mound and under his glove for a game-tying two-out single in the eighth.
Credit goes, too, to the Gamecocks' bullpen, which threw 5 1/3 shutout innings of relief, and to freshman pitcher Forrest Koumas, who had gone three weeks since he last pitched in a game and who a year ago led Lugoff-Elgin High to South Carolina's Class 3A championship. This stage was a bit different, thanks to the 25,851 in attendance and the millions more watching on national television.
Those tuning in or attending this year's College World Series for the first time had plenty opportunity to get acquainted to TD Ameritrade Park, the $131 million new downtown home to the Series, thanks to the innings of extra baseball. The new park shares the same city of residence and the same familiar dimensions as old Rosenblatt Stadium, but little else: whereas Rosenblatt was quaint and quirky, TD Ameritrade is sparkling yet sterile, trading a cozy neighborhood in southern Omaha for the downtown construction boom.
The only run allowed by Koumas scored in the third inning on a fly ball tucked inside the left-field line off the bat of light-hitting infielder slotted No. 9 in the batting order with the family name of Dent. In this case it was the Gators' sophomore third baseman Cody Dent, rather than his father, Bucky, the Yankees shortstop whose down-the-line poke over the Green Monster in a one-game playoff famously ended the Red Sox' 1978 season.
As improbable as Bucky Dent's home run have been the escape tactics of South Carolina over the past week. To advance to the final series, it survived tie-game, bases-loaded situations in the 10th, 12th and 13th innings to No. 1-ranked Virginia on Friday before winning thanks to two throwing errors in the bottom of the lucky 13th.
The Gamecocks faced a similar situation Monday night in the 10th when the Gators loaded the bases with no one out, before reliever John Taylor -- who has pitched in all nine of USC's NCAA tournament games this year -- induced consecutive ground balls to Wingo at second base. The second was a laser that he ably turned into a second-to-home-to-first twin killing, but it was the first that raised hair in South Carolina as his throw skipped to catcher Robert Beary at the plate. But so charmed has their season been that Beary snagged the ball on a short hop despite the cumbersome catcher's mitt.
"I blacked out," Beary said. "I blacked out and I was like, 'Wow, I caught the ball.' I ended up holding on -- barely."
Added Morales about some fortuitous pregame foreshadowing, "We weren't sure if Walker was going to go, so [Beary] was taking throws at first. He was scooping at first and then he was scooping behind the plate. It worked out pretty good for us."
That complex formula of a bases-loaded escape followed by a run scoring on consecutive throwing errors worked again Monday on Walker's mad dash around the bases, as the catcher's throw on the steal attempt sailed into center field, and the center fielder's effort to nab him at third bounced out of play near the dugout.
"Coach [Ray] Tanner always tells us, 'Just win anyway' -- no matter what the situation is," Walker said.
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