OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — South Carolina returned just three everyday players to its lineup this season, yet the Gamecocks are here again — back in the College World Series finals.
Tyler Webb and Matt Price combined for seven innings of shutout relief, and the two-time defending national champions defeated Arkansas 3-2 to win their bracket Friday night.
They took the lead in the bottom of the seventh on Barrett Astin's two-out, bases-loaded walk to Adam Matthews. Then Price closed out the game for his CWS-record fifth career win in Omaha.
South Carolina (49-18) will open the best-of-three finals against Arizona on Sunday. The Gamecocks are trying to become the first team to win three titles in a row since Southern California strung together five straight from 1970-74.
"It's kind of hard to explain, because there are so many good baseball teams that we play throughout the year. Very rarely do we think that we're so much better than the other team," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said.
"Our guys have great perspective. They respect the game. They respect their opponents. And we play in a conference that if you feel like you're one of the best seven or eight teams, you feel like you're pretty good."
South Carolina returned only Evan Marzilli, Christian Walker and Matthews as regular position players from last year's championship team. The Gamecocks went through some rough patches in Southeastern Conference play before they started revving up for the postseason.
In Omaha, they had to play SEC rival Arkansas (46-22) three times in five nights to make it back to the championship round.
Arkansas had ended the Gamecocks' record 22-game win streak in the NCAA tournament with a 2-1 victory on Monday. The Gamecocks forced a second bracket championship game with their 2-0 win on Thursday.
As expected, Friday's rematch came down to pitching.
"Obviously that game could have gone either way," Tanner said. "That was one of those typical SEC battles on this stage. And both teams had opportunities to win. We just felt like for us to have a chance to win, we had to get nine innings out of (Colby) Holmes, Webb and Price, two or three apiece, and it kind of worked out that way. We felt we had to hold them to three, four runs max to have a chance to win. And it just kind of happened exactly like that."
Price (5-4), who gave up one hit and struck out five, pitched three innings for his record-setting win.
"Speechless. I know how many great pitchers have been through the College World Series," Price said. "And even though I've been coming out of the bullpen, probably vulturing some wins I guess you would say, but just giving our team a chance to win is what matters to me most."
Of Price's 48 pitches, 37 were strikes.
Price was spectacular for the second year in a row in the bracket final. Last year he entered a 2-2 game against Virginia and worked 5 2-3 scoreless innings in a 3-2, 13-inning victory.
"Matt's a great pitcher and I think the whole country has seen what he's capable of doing in big-time situations and on the big stage, especially here in Omaha," Matthews said. "He's done a great job keeping us in the game and giving us a chance to win."
The Gamecocks erased a 2-0 deficit in the fifth, with Arkansas starter DJ Baxendale walking Walker with the bases loaded to force in the tying run. Baxendale had a career-high five walks.
Matthews looked ready to swing on a 3-2 pitch from Astin in the seventh, but he held up as the slider dropped low and Joey Pankake trotted home for the go-ahead run.
The run ended the Arkansas bullpen's streak of 26 scoreless innings and came on the ninth walk issued by the Razorbacks.
"South Carolina did a great job of manufacturing a run there late to win the game or to get the lead to end up being the winning run," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "I just feel bad for our players. They fought hard."
Matthews also had come up with the bases loaded two times earlier in the game. He hit into an inning-ending double play in the first, and he struck out to end the fifth.
Matthews said he felt the pressure as he walked to the plate in the seventh.
"I better do something or I'm never going to be able to live in Columbia again," he said. "I was telling coach Tanner before we came in that I left a small village of those guys on bases. He threw me some good pitches that I watched. And he threw me a good slider there at the end that I held off of and fortunately I walked."
Colby Suggs (7-1) took the loss for Arkansas (46-22).
Webb, who relieved Holmes after the Hogs' first two batters reached in the third, allowed two hits in four innings.
"I knew it was going to be tight and it didn't surprise me it ended up being a one-run game, and we played so many," Van Horn said. "Hats off to the pitchers. I thought they did a great job. I thought they filled up the zone all night long."