In honor of the NCAA Baseball Tournament, I wanted to take a second to tell the story of one of my favorite moments in tournament history.
Let's go back to 2006, to the Athens Super Regional between South Carolina and Georgia. Game 1 in the best of 3.
The South Carolina Gamecocks strolled into Athens, GA June 10th, 2006 for a best-of-3 Super Regional against the Georgia Bulldogs with a ticket to Omaha and the College World Series on the line.
Georgia is coming in at 44-21, managed by Dave Perno. They have reached this precipice after staving off elimination in 3 consecutive games to win their home regional. They are hoping to return to Omaha for the third time since 2000.
South Carolina, on the other hand, had to fight through an off-site regional. They are run by manager Ray Tanner, who would go on to win 2 national championships at South Carolina before becoming the school's athletic director in 2012. The Gamecocks only needed to win one elimination game against Evansville to seal the trip to Athens. They are looking for their 4th CWS appearance in 5 years.
The game gets underway and almost immediately it is all Carolina. After two singles, a home run, complete with an aluminum *ping* synonymous with the bats used in NCAA baseball, the Gamecocks gain an early 3-0 lead. In the bottom half of the inning, Georgia goes down in order.
Bulldog senior pitcher Mickey Westphal (5.24 ERA, 7-2) comes back out and gets James Darnell and Reese Havens to fly out to center to begin the 2nd.
South Carolina leadoff man Chris Brown walks on a full count. Then, Neil Giesler steps in.
This is when things get interesting.
The South Carolina radio broadcast, headed by play-by-play Mike Morgan, mentions that the .352-hitting Giesler has only 3 home runs on the year. The most recent among them came 73 days ago.
Westphal fires the first pitch of the AB.
Giesler unloads on a ball to right. It flirts with hitting the scoreboard at Foley Field, high and deep over the wall. Immediately the lead balloons to 5-0 Carolina with 2 outs in the 2nd.
Georgia quickly gets their bullpen going as Westphal works an 0-2 count, showing some poise against Justin Smoak. Rather than waste pitches he chooses to challenge Smoak, resulting in a foul ball. Still hoping to end the bleeding swiftly, Westphal challenges Smoak again.
Smoak gets ahold of it and sends it deep, to left field this time. The ball lands in the trees beyond the stadium as Carolina goes back-to-back. UGA catcher Jason Jacobs goes out to the mound as Smoak rounds the bases, hoping to settle Westphal down. The radio broadcast notices, describing Westphal as "moping around the rubber".
Westphal doesn't get to mope for long however. Soon after, Phil Disher's strides in from the on-deck circle. Not an everyday starter, he only has 6 home runs on the season, and is hitting .262. A clearly shaken Westphal opens with a pitch off the plate and perhaps works too quickly to get set and go again. He deals.
Disher decides he likes what he just saw and hits a third consecutive Gamecock no-doubter even deeper into the trees in left. Neither Mickey Westphal nor Dave Perno can believe it. Not even Tommy Moody, color commentator, can believe it.
"Mike that ball...that ball had to go close to 400 if not 500 feet." - Tommy Moody, South Carolina color commentator
The broadcast mentions it's the 2nd time this year that Carolina has gone back-to-back-to-back, and that any further would lead to tying the school record set back in 1980.
Perno is forced to go to his bullpen. He chooses to bring in Stephen Dodson (4.19 ERA, 6 BB) a bullpen arm with phenomenal control.
After some warmup pitches, it is Andrew Crisp, who hit the home run to break the tie in the first, who gets the first crack. Dodson immediately gets ahead 0-1 before firing a fastball high and wide. 1-1. Mike Morgan then observes that with the way the Gamecocks are hitting the Georgia defenders should be playing on the warning track. A third announcer clarifies that he should've said the parking lot. Dodson winds and fires.
Another pitcher, another blast. Crisp hits a bomb that joins the previous two in the trees beyond left field. Carolina gathers at the plate to meet Crisp, and the Gamecocks tie the record for the most consecutive home runs in school history on his second of the day.
The crowd of 3,672 are in a mix of Georgian shock and Carolinian delirium at the site unfolding in front of them. The 4 consecutive home-runs are unbelievable; it's only happened 10 times in MLB history at the time of this article (and only 3 at the time of this game). More so, to have them be 4 no-doubt moonshots in a Super Regional against a conference rival is the scenario of legends for the Gamecocks.
And they weren’t done.
Despite probably not wanting to, Dodson has to keep throwing. Baseball's funny that way. And on a 1-1 count to Robbie Grinestaff, Dodson throws a curveball that finds a lot of the plate.
Grinestaff finishes Georgia off by hitting a ball so far it actually clears the scoreboard in right. The broadcast goes crazy, Dodson lets out a very obvious expletive, Perno can't help but awkwardly shift from foot to foot, and Westphal has a towel draped over his head in the dugout.
5 consecutive no doubt home runs. All with 2 outs in the inning. Almost unheard of in baseball history. In fact, it's only happened twice before. The NCAA record remains at 5, set also by Eastern Illinois in 1998 and D-III Centenary in 1992. South Carolina remains the most recent team to accomplish the feat, and to do so in a game with these implications is unfathomable.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Dodson manages to get Ian Paxton to fly out on a ball that reaches the warning track and South Carolina is retired, ending one of the most entertaining innings in baseball history.
After the game Ray Tanner would say he didn't realize five in a row had been hit, stating that "you get lost in the game a little bit".
Led by pitcher Harris Honeycutt, the Gamecocks would go on to win this game 15-6. However, the following games would culminate in consecutive losses. Georgia went on to win games 2 and 3 11-5 and 11-6 to advance to Omaha.
As I write this, the 2022 College World Series field has been set. While there will be incredible offense en route to crowning a champion, you probably shouldn't expect anything like this.
"This has got to be a fantasy dream." - Tommy Moody, South Carolina color commentator