Ray Tanner was fuming.
His South Carolina team had just lost a weekend series at East Carolina and he hardly uttered a word during the long, four-hour bus trip home. He just sat there seething, letting his anger and frustration simmer until he couldn’t take it anymore.
When the team finally returned to Founders Park, Tanner ordered his players into the clubhouse, where he burst into a tirade he calls “one of my all-time classics.”
“I expressed myself very clearly,” he recalls. “I just said, ‘this is how it’s going to be and these are my expectations.’”
Scott Wingo can’t stop laughing when he recalls the story.
“I think he wrote everyone down on his list and he had something about everybody,” he said. “He went down chair by chair telling them what they did wrong in the game or something they needed to get better at.”
To his junior second baseman, Tanner barked, ‘Wingo, you didn’t even get on base all weekend.’”
At that, Wingo was taken aback, because he had gone 2-for-5 with a walk and two runs scored in the three-game series and had been on base six times in South Carolina’s first six games. As Tanner ripped into him, he started counting on his fingers all the times he had been on base.
“I didn’t mean to be a smart aleck, but I started counting on my fingers and a couple of players saw me counting and almost started busting out laughing,” he said. “I was like, ‘I got on base, coach.’ … I was just like, ‘one, two … no, I definitely got on base.’
“That was a good one, because he let everybody have it.”
“I spared no one,” Tanner recalls.
Tanner had led the Gamecocks to 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including three straight trips to the College World Series in 2002-04. They were coming off a 40-23 campaign in 2009 that ended with back-to-back losses to East Carolina in the NCAA Regionals in Greenville, N.C., a town they had just revisited with similar results. But he had a good team returning and believed they had a chance to have a good season and make a deeper postseason run.
“I will not sit here and tell you we were going to win a national championship, but I thought we had a good team and that series at East Caorlina disappointed me so much,” he said. “I just felt like we were not in our personality. We were more about what our rankings might be and more about what we were told we were or just feeling good about ourselves.”
He could handle a couple of early-season losses, especially to a strong program that had beaten South Carolina in the postseason the year before. It was his team’s attitude and approach that bothered him.
“You are who you are, and I did not think we were in character that weekend and that really disturbed me because … I’ve never been one where we rest on our laurels and rankings and we’re this good,” he said. “… I’ve always sort of prided us as being a team that could go out and play fundamentally sound baseball and grind it out and have a pretty good team. I never felt like I had the best players in the country or we were invincible. I always felt like you had to do things the right way and that weekend I just felt like we were just so out of character, and I wasn’t going to tolerate it. It wasn’t going to be tolerated.”
The following weekend, South Carolina lost an even bigger series, falling to rival Clemson after a 19-6 drubbing on Sunday. But Tanner said he didn’t “go crazy” after that loss because his team just “got taken to the woodshed.”
His message had already been delivered. After the Clemson loss (a defeat they would avenge in a big way three months later), the Gamecocks reeled off 13 straight wins, including a 5-0 start in the SEC, en route to the most memorable season in school history.
“After that game, man, we just flipped the switch. We turned over a leaf and went to town on some teams,” Wingo said. “That’s when we got hot. When Clemson beat us, we could have gone the other way. You get crushed, you can go one way, or you can go the other way, and we answered the bell for sure. I think after that game was when we got hot and we kinda came together.”
Three months later, as they hoisted the national championship trophy at historic Rosenblatt Stadium after winning the 2010 College World Series, they remembered the lessons they had learned from those early-season setbacks.
“We faced some adversity as a team but felt like that was the best thing for us,” said pitcher and CWS hero Michael Roth. “It made us really come together as a group. We had to focus on the things that were going on in the clubhouse and the dugout and not hear about how good we were and not hear about what we could do. And we were able to come together in those moments and force a toughness that would propel us on to a national championship.”
That was Tanner’s masterstroke. He knew exactly how to get his team’s attention, how hard to push to correct mistakes and turn things around, and then let his players go out and play loose and confident.
“He was very good at that,” said Wingo, now an assistant coach at Notre Dame. “He knew which guys could handle a little bit more pushing and he knew the guys who couldn’t. I think he was very strategic in when he said things and what he said. … If we were going bad, he was good at saying, ‘Hey, take a step back, look at this, relax and then let’s go play. It’s OK.’ But he’s very good at not letting it snowball. You know who the boss is, but he makes you feel like, ‘Hey, we are under control, we are fine.’”
Bouncing back and overcoming adversity was the story of the season for the resilient Gamecocks, who won the program’s first national championship 10 years ago this month. The 2010 team finished 54-16, including 21-9 in the SEC, and won big game after big game with their backs to the wall and the season on the line. After going 0-2 in the SEC Tournament, they bounced back to sweep through the NCAA Columbia Regional. A week later, they rallied to beat Coastal Carolina 10-9 on Christian Walker’s dramatic three-run home run that sent them to the College World Series.
In Omaha, they lost their first game to Oklahoma, 4-3, but bounced back to win six straight, becoming the first team in College World Series history to win six consecutive games to claim the national championship. It was a streak that would keep on going, leading to back-to-back national titles in 2011, another championship series appearance in 2012 and a record 22 straight postseason victories.
Though Tanner had built one of the top programs in college baseball — 11 NCAA appearances, seven Super Regionals, three trips to Omaha since 1998 — his 2010 team started the greatest three-year run in school history. Playing with a chip on their shoulders and the refuse-to-lose attitude demanded by their head coach, they went where no South Carolina team had gone before.
“We always thought we were the underdog for some reason, but I think that was a job that coach Tanner did to keep us level-headed and keep us fighting and grinding,” said Blake Cooper, who led the Gamecocks with a 13-2 record as their Friday night starter. “I think that was one thing he was really good at, making all his teams feel like they had a chip on their shoulder.”
Said Wingo: “I always joke around that I wanted to win more than him, but I don’t know if I truly believe that, because there was nobody who wanted to win more than him, and we knew that.”
‘A PERFECT MIX’
Tanner had built a national powerhouse at South Carolina, winning three SEC championships (2000, 2002, 2004) and leading the Gamecocks to a runner-up finish in Omaha in 2002. But he believed he had one of his most complete teams in 2010.
He had his share of stars, with six players that would go on to play in the major leagues, including current stars Jackie Bradley Jr. and Whit Merrifield. But he also had grinders like Wingo and third baseman Adrian Morales, who would do anything to win a game, and clutch players like Brady Thomas, Robert Beary and Evan Marzilli, who all came off the bench to deliver big hit after big hit.
The rotation was led by Cooper, a 5-10 breaking-ball specialist from tiny Neeses, S.C., and future big-leaguer Sam Dyson. The bullpen was anchored by redshirt freshman Matt Price, who would become the greatest closer in College World Series history, and a host of unsung heroes. Then there were players like Roth, a soft-tossing lefty who rose from relative obscurity to pitch two of the biggest games of the season and develop into one of the nation’s best starters.
Tanner described his team as “pieces of the puzzle that fit seamlessly.”
“Yeah, I had some good players — let’s not discount the fact that [six] of those guys reached the big leagues — but we just had parts that were key to success,” he said. “They knew their roles, they could stay within themselves as far as ability was concerned, do the things they were capable of doing and we just seemed to be at our best as the season wore on and it became more critical.”
The Gamecocks won with pitching and defense. Cooper and Dyson led a pitching staff that had a 3.45 team ERA and held opponents to a .226 batting average. Defensively, they were strong up the middle with Bradley in center, Wingo at second and senior Bobby Haney at shortstop, and fielded .975 as a team.
They could also hit, with Bradley, Thomas, Walker, Merrifield and Adam Matthews all batting over .300. Bradley and Merrifield led the team with 13 home runs each, while three players (Bradley, Walker and Adrian Morales) all drove in more than 50 runs.
“We just became so proficient in playing the game,” Tanner said. “We didn’t beat ourselves, we pitched well, we played good defense, we were opportunistic offensively. We weren’t Goliath, we were just a team that was well prepared to be successful.”
“We won on pitching, defense and clutch hitting,” Morales said. “We weren’t a juggernaut offensive team, so we knew we had to be really good defensively.”
They were also willing to do whatever it took to win, whether it was laying down a bunt, making a diving stop on defense or coming off the bench to deliver a key hit. Tanner called it a “selfless group.”
“If you had to write down all the things that will help your team win … the selflessness, the talent level, the ability to execute, the ability to make plays at critical times, it was almost like we could check each one of those,” Tanner said.
Wingo, who would lead the Gamecocks to a second straight title in 2011, called the 2010 team “a perfect mix” of stars and “grinders.” While Bradley, Merrifield and Walker hit from the day they stepped on campus, role players like Wingo and Morales were the grinders and glue to the team.
“Every kind of personality baseball-wise that’s good to have on a team, we had it,” Wingo said. “We had the studs, we had the grinders. We were just going to fight you, and we were pretty good too. It’s hard to beat that type of team.”
No one epitomized the grinder mentality more than Wingo and Morales. Wingo took over at second base and raised his average from .196 as a sophomore to .247 with nine home runs as a junior. Teaming with Haney to form one of the best double-play combinations in the country, he made spectacular, game-saving plays on defense and delivered clutch hits throughout the postseason. Cooper, who made it to Triple-A professionally, calls him one of the best defensive players he’s ever seen.
“He took more pride in his defense than any player I ever coached,” Tanner said. “He was like, ‘I’ll make a difference with my glove.’”
Morales, a junior-college transfer, started the season on the bench before taking over at third base and pushing Walker to first. He wound up batting .273 with nine home runs and 56 RBI. And he was also clutch. After struggling in the final series of the regular season against Florida and in the SEC Tournament, he homered in all three games of the NCAA Regionals to earn Regional MVP.
He also served as the team’s emotional leader and one of its chief motivators.
“He hated losing,” Tanner said of Morales. “He hated losing more than he loved winning. He didn’t like it. And he didn’t like people around him content with mediocrity. And if he didn’t think you were competing well enough or approaching the game the right way, he let you know it. He didn’t wait for a coach to let you know it, he would let you know it.”
Wingo and Morales set the tone for a team known for clutch hits, big plays and doing whatever it takes.
“All I wanted was be in the lineup every day,” said Morales, now the head coach at Miami Dade College. “Even if they put me in left field, it didn’t matter, I wanted to help impact the game somehow so that every time I saw that board, my name was on it.”
In many ways, the 2010 team took on the personality of their head coach, who had created a winning culture.
“I was hard-nosed, I was a grinder, winning was a big deal to me,” Tanner said. “But it was not the be-all, end-all, because the approach to me was the thing that gave you a chance to win. We have to be the kind of team that has a chance to win. It doesn’t guarantee you are going to win, it guarantees you a chance you are going to win. But if you don’t do things the right way, there is no chance. That was my driving influence on my team.”
That kind of selfless attitude created a team with a knack for late-inning comebacks. South Carolina was 17-10 in one- or two-run games and 7-3 on Sunday in the SEC. And the Gamecocks had a flare for the dramatic. They rallied to win late against Bucknell and The Citadel in the first two games of the Columbia Regional. They trailed Coastal 5-2 and 9-7 before their dramatic eighth-inning comeback in the Super Regionals in Myrtle Beach.
In Omaha, after their opening-round loss, they were down to their last strike in an elimination game against Oklahoma when Bradley tied the game with an RBI single in the 12th and Thomas followed with the game-winner.
With clutch hitting and a strong bullpen, Tanner’s teams were usually at their best in the late innings. The 2010 team was 41-1 when leading entering the seventh inning and 7-3 when tied entering the seventh.
“Tanner always preached, you have to win the sixth through the ninth. Yeah, one through five is important, but you have to be really sharp six through nine, and we were able to do that and we built the confidence that we were never out of a game,” Morales said. “We were just a clutch team. Maybe average-wise we were not the best in the league, but we got the hits when it mattered most, for sure.”
“I heard it so often in the dugout,” Tanner said. “We would be down by two in the regular season or trailing by one going into the eighth and it was like, ‘we’ve got ‘em right where we want them.’ And I’m thinking to myself, that’s not exactly the way I feel, but that’s the kind of mentality the team had. It was like, we’re going to grind and hang around until you give us a chance and then we are going through the door. The expectation was that we would win.”
Tanner’s belief was that if his team could contend in the SEC, it would be prepared for postseason play and a contender to reach the College World Series. South Carolina was in contention for another SEC title in 2010 before losing to Florida in the final series of the season. They went 0-2 in the SEC Tournament, but it mattered very little. They were in postseason mode by that point.
“As the season unfolded we were starting to just not miss any opportunities,” Tanner said. “We needed to pitch well, we did. We needed a two-out hit, we got one. We needed someone to come off the bench and here comes Brady Thomas. Robert Beary, here he comes. That was fun to watch, because you can’t draw it up.”
By the time the Gamecocks got to Omaha, they were a seasoned, resilient team that expected to win every game. When they lost to Oklahoma in Game 1, there was no worry, no pressure. It was business as usual.
Tanner still marvels at how comfortable his team was in tight, tense situations. He would be leaning on the rail of the dugout, plotting strategy and thinking two or three innings ahead when he would look over and see his team loose and laughing, seemingly without a care in the world.
“They could somehow get comfortable at the most uncomfortable times ever,” he said. “I would look down the bench and our guys were like this is the most comfortable environment they have ever been in. It was kind of hard to describe how comfortable they were because you are playing for all the marbles. You say everybody go out and have fun and relax, well that’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do and those guys were able to do that. We had some characters and they help you at a time like that.”
“The fans could get restless but we never panicked,” Morales said. “We kept our composure and we trusted in our ability and we trusted in our tough schedule in the SEC and we were able to come back in all those games.”
The most memorable moment, of course, came on the biggest stage and in the biggest game of the season. After Cooper stifled UCLA and ace Gerrit Cole in a 7-1 win in Game 1 of the championship series, the Gamecocks and Bruins squared off in a nail-biter in Game 2.
Though Roth delivered another gutsy start, the Gamecocks trailed 1-0 until Thomas delivered a pinch-hit single in the eighth and scored when Haney’s ground ball found a hole on the right side of the infield. With Price shutting down UCLA in the late innings, the Gamecocks were just waiting for their opportunity.
“We didn’t expect to lose, we were just waiting for an opportunity to win,” Tanner said. “We had to just hold on and grind until the opportunity presented itself and then we would sneak out of there.”
Wingo, appropriately, started the winning rally with a walk. He went to second on a passed ball before Marzilli bunted him to third. On a 2-0 count, Merrifield stroked a line drive down the right field line to drive in Wingo, setting off a wild celebration as the Gamecocks reveled in their first national championship.
“The feeling running down that baseline was just surreal,” Wingo said. “You heard the entire stands get louder and louder and louder, almost like it came from left field, and by the time I hit home plate, all the guys rushed the field. It was one of the purest and most unbelievable feelings you can have.”
“It was just pure excitement,” Morales said. “Just seeing all of our hard work and the way we banded together as brothers was awesome to see. [We were] a team that wasn’t supposed to [win it], but we always believed in ourselves. It was an exciting time for us and for the fans and South Carolina baseball.”
South Carolina made history that year as the last team to win the College World Series at historic Rosenblatt Stadium. It would make history again the following year, winning the first College World Series at new TD Ameritrade Park and becoming the last team to win back-to-back national championships. It’s record of 22 straight postseason wins still stands.
Looking back, Tanner relishes those memories and accomplishments.
“Winning at Rosenblatt that last game, that was just so special to me after it was all said and done,” he said. “I remember the bugle playing at the end of the night, thinking this is really incredible, this is so special. It will never be done again. And then to win the first one at TD Americatrade, and the bats also changed and exit velocity, so we had to adapt a little bit with our personnel with the way we played the game because the ball didn’t fly out of the park as much. It was entirely different, but that was special. And then to get back for a third year in a row, it was amazing.
“To me, it’s just a tribute to the people that you are with, the assistant coaches I had and the players who accepted the program and the approach in the program. We just didn’t have to deal with a lot of outside noise. You just focused on what the team had to do and you went to work every day and you had fun doing it. And we were able to win our share and, most importantly, we won the games that counted the most.”