OMAHA, Neb. – More than six hours of rain delays didn't bother the Sooners on Sunday.
It bolstered them.
When Oklahoma's College World Series opener was forced into a battle of the bullpens, it played to OU's strength, proven again in a 4-3 win over South Carolina.
Before a crowd that dwindled from its peak of 22,835 at Rosenblatt Stadium, the Sooners made a grand return to Omaha, posting the program's first CWS victory since the 1994 national championship squad's clinching victory in the title game.
The start of the game was delayed 4 hours and 15 minutes by rain and lightning. Once underway, OU led 3-2 coming to bat in the bottom of the sixth, when another round of lightning caused a delay of 2:15.
That signaled the end for the starting pitchers — the Sooners' Michael Rocha and South Carolina ace Blake Cooper — and the beginning of the end for the Gamecocks.
OU, now 50-16 overall, entered the game 40-0 when leading after six innings. Make that 41, and counting.
And while Sooner reliever Jeremy Erben wriggled through some scary moments, closer Ryan Duke finished the win, escaping a jam of his own, but tying the school career record for saves in the process.
“One thing we always talk about with our guys is getting out of their way and letting them do their thing,” said OU coach Sunny Golloway. “We knew that if Erben's going good, we let him try to finish it late. If not, we go straight to Duke.
“We coach with our instincts and our gut. We always feel good when we have a bridge-the-gap guy like Erben and a closer like Duke.”
The Sooners advance to the winner's bracket final to face the Arizona State-Clemson winner.
Erben left the bases loaded in the eighth, after allowing a one-out single and walking two. When South Carolina started the ninth with consecutive singles off Erben, Duke entered with a 4-2 lead. Two walks worked between two outs forced in a run to make it 4-3, before he got Adrian Morales to fly out to center to end the game.
“We took some pitches,” said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner. “We got on base. We just failed to come up with the big RBI single or double to put us in good position.
“But their guy, Duke, he's had a nice year. He's been out there at the end. He was very calm. He missed a couple of spots, but he was able to get out of it.”
Said Golloway: “We had to really compete on the mound.”
The Sooners scored a run in the first when Chris Ellison led off with a single and scored three batters later on Tyler Ogle's two-out single to right.
South Carolina tied it in the second on a solo homer by Christian Walker, whose blast to left-center left the yard — literally.
The teams then traded solo home runs, with Caleb Bushyhead going deep for the Sooners in the second and Jackie Bradley Jr. sending one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth.
OU regained the lead in the bottom of the fourth, with Bushyhead's run-scoring single to right field scoring Cody Reine, who had led off with a single.
Garrett Buechele drilled a solo home run in the eighth, which proved big with the Gamecocks rallying for a run in the ninth.
“I honestly was just trying to hit a ball to right field and get on base,” Buechele said, “try to get an inning going. I got a pitch up and put a good swing on it and hit it out of the park.”
The scheduled 1 p.m. game finished — at 10:19 p.m. — with rain falling and a lightning show filling the sky in every direction.
The win made it all worth while for the Sooners.
“When would you as an amateur stay and try to finish a rain delay?” Golloway said. “The only place is Rosenblatt. I kept thinking, ‘It's Father's Day. We're in a long rain delay. There's nowhere we'd rather be.'
“It wasn't bad from that standpoint. That's something we could all draw upon, how great it is to be here and how hard you have to work to get here. Surely, you're not going to let a little rain dampen your day.”