By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
All Whit Merrifield ever wanted was an opportunity.
An opportunity to play college baseball. An opportunity to win a national championship.
And, after toiling in the minor leagues for seven years, an opportunity to play Major League Baseball.
Merrifield knew that if he just got an opportunity, he could make it.
"This game is all about taking advantages of opportunities," said Merrifield, who made his major league debut with the Kansas City Royals on May 18, 2016 and became an American League All-Star last season.
Baseball, and sports in general, are all about opportunity. That's a lesson Merrifield learned at the University of South Carolina, where his name will forever be etched into Gamecock lore as the player who got the game-winning hit in the 2010 College World Series to help deliver South Carolina's first major national championship.
That 2010 team was all about taking advantage of opportunities and Merrifield was always right in the middle of it. Led by Merrifield, a three-year starter as an infielder and outfielder, and other future pros like Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Walker, Sam Dyson and Michael Roth, the Gamecocks finished 54-16 and bounced back from a first-round loss to Oklahoma to win six straight games in Omaha, including the thrilling, 11-inning, 2-1 victory over UCLA in the national title game.
"This game is all about taking advantages of opportunities, just like that 2010 World Series team," Merrifield said in March as he prepared for spring training with the Royals. "We got an opportunity and took advantage of it."
While Merrifield is having another all-star caliber season for the Royals, the Gamecocks have another golden opportunity, making their 32nd appearance in NCAA Tournament. South Carolina opens the postseason Friday at 2 p.m. against Ohio State in the Greenville (N.C.) Regional at East Carolina.
The Gamecocks will be trying to advance to the Super Regionals for the 13th time and play for their 12th College World Series appearance. To do it, they will have to win big game after big game — just as they did to play their way into the tournament — taking advantage of every opportunity.
The 2010 team won one big game after another, including two dramatic one-run victories over Coastal Carolina in the Super Regionals, and featured big performances from numerous star players. Bradley, a future MLB All-Star himself, led the team with a .368 average and 13 home runs and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series. Walker hit .327 and drove in 51 runs. Pitcher Blake Cooper was 13-2 and beat future major leaguer Gerrit Cole in Omaha. Dyson won two games in Omaha and Roth was the unsung hero, beating Clemson in an elimination game and starting the national championship game.
But no one came up bigger than Merrifield, the scrappy, versatile player who hit .321 as a junior with 13 home runs, 41 RBI and 72 runs scored. It was Merrifield who got the biggest hit in Gamecock baseball history.
No matter what Merrifield accomplishes in the big leagues, he likely will never have a bigger moment than the night he strode to the plate with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning at Omaha's historic Rosenblatt Stadium.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Merrifield said nearly eight years later.
With the game tied 1-1 and the winning run at third, all Merrifield wanted was an opportunity. Second baseman Scott Wingo led off the inning with a walk, moved to second on a passed ball and advanced to third on Evan Marzilli's sacrifice bunt.
As Merrifield prepared to step to the plate against UCLA reliever Dan Klein, the Bruins had Trevor Bauer, its best pitcher and another future major leaguer, warming up in the bullpen. When UCLA head coach John Savage walked to the mound, Merrifield assumed Bauer was entering the game.
"I was preparing myself for that," Merrifield recalls. "Then I saw the coach walk back to the dugout."
At that point, Merrifield thought UCLA would walk both him and Bradley to load the bases and set up a possible double play to end the inning.
"I really had no nerves or no expectations because I didn't think I was going to get a chance to hit," he said. "So I walked to the plate and when I saw the catcher squat down, I was kinda hit with a rush of emotions and nerves, and then the at-bat started and he went ball one and ball two and in the back of my head I'm thinking, 'He's going to get me to chase something or just throw four pitches out of the zone and walk me.'"
All he wanted was a chance.
After Klein ran the count to 2-0, he took a few seconds to get the sign from his catcher, so Merrifield stepped out of the box to regroup and re-evaluate.
"When I stepped out, I kinda had to rethink to myself, you have a chance to win a national championship here, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he recalled. "So I said to myself, if this ball is anywhere close to the zone, I am going to swing, because all I have to do his hit a fly ball to the outfield and we win the game.
"I stepped back in and he threw a fastball down and away, not a great pitch to swing at in a 2-0 count. But at that time, I am just trying to hit something to the outfield to drive the run in. I hit it on the barrel and it went down the line and the rest is history."
Merrifield made the most of his opportunity and Wingo scored the winning run, setting off the wildest celebration in the history of Gamecock athletics.
"It was a pretty surreal moment," Merrifield recalls. "You work all year to get to that point and then you get to Omaha and lose the first game and then come back and win six in a row to knock off a bunch of good teams, it was special."
Another big opportunity
In June, before the College World Series, Merrifield got another big opportunity, getting drafted in the ninth round by the Royals. After the national championship game, he began his professional career in Burlington, Iowa in the Class A Midwestern League.
His professional journey began like most minor leaguers, with long bus rides and long days at run-down ballparks, toiling in the hot sun before sparsecrowds.
"Honestly, it sucked," Merrifield said of his early days in the minors.
In a matter of weeks, Merrifield went from playing on a national championship team in one of the best ballparks in the country in front of big crowds almost every night to playing in relative obscurity in small towns in the middle of nowhere. And he had to adjust from playing on a close-knit team with a win-at-all-costs approach to a game where the focus is on individual development and advancing to the next level.
"The minor leagues, it's a different world," he said. "Winning is not at the forefront of your mind. It's about individual accomplishments and it's about getting better as an individual so you move forward and get closer to the big leagues, and that took me a while to get accustomed to.
"I didn't realize how hard it was going to be for me personally because playing the game to win and playing with that intensity and passion is kind of … I'm not good enough to just rely on my abilities. I need that drive and that passion to elevate my game, and I didn't have that in the minor leagues, so it took me a long time to get adjusted to that. It was a grind and it was a struggle and it was a long progression through the minor leagues."
Photo courtesy of Kansas City Royals
For seven long years, Merrifield toiled in the minors. At one point, he seriously considered hanging it up, but his dad Bill, an All-American at Wake Forest and a former minor leaguer himself, talked him out of it. In 2015, he was told he was going to the big leagues only to be told a couple of hours later the team had changed its mind. Even after getting called up and shining in the second half of 2016, he was left off the major league roster at the start of 2017 and had to fight his way back to the show.
But just like Ray Tanner's Gamecocks in 2010, Merrifield kept battling, kept fighting and kept chasing his dream.
"I think it was just a culmination of a lot of things," he said. "Hard work, confidence and being ready for that stage and being prepared every day to go out and trust the work that I had put in and just doing everything that I could do to be successful.
"I just finally got a chance and when I got a chance to play in the big leagues on a team that is about winning, I think that helps my game a lot."
Always a Gamecock
As Merrifield begins his second full season in the big leagues and continues to develop into a major league star, he still gets asked occasionally about the 2010 College World Series and his game-winning hit.
"It still gets brought up, whether it be media members or Gamecocks fans I run into randomly or teammates that discover that that moment happened for me, they ask me about it," he said.
It's a moment and experience he will never forget, but like most of his teammates, he didn't really understand the magnitude of the accomplishment until the team returned from Omaha.
"We didn't really understand or realize the magnitude of what we had just done until we got back to Columbia and got to have the welcome-back party at Colonial Life and then the parade the next day and see the turnout and all the people who came out to show their appreciation and celebrate with us," he said.
"Just talking to different alumni and fans throughout the course of these last eight years and really realizing how special it was to them to finally get off the snide and get a championship, it was an incredible moment and I'm just thrilled that we were able to come out on top."
Merrifield still marvels at what the 2010 accomplished. The 54 wins, an early-season 13-game winning streak, eight SEC series victories, the dramatic one-run games in the Super Regionals and the record six straight wins in Omaha.
It was a special team with special players. Seven players on the 2010 roster are still playing professionally, including three major leaguers in Merrifield, Bradley and Dyson.
"It's kind of a cliche, but it's true, we had great chemistry and our team dynamic was incredible," Merrifield said. "We had kind of a can't-lose attitude and we never felt like we were out of a game.
"All the things that you have to have to be a good baseball team, we had. We were balanced. We had good starting pitching, a good bullpen, we had good speed, we had some power, we played good defense and the main thing was we just put it together in the postseason. … We had a good chance to win every game and that's what we did."
Merrifield still keeps in touch with many of his former teammates. He sees Bradley when the Royals play the Red Sox and used to see Dyson when he was in Texas with the Rangers. He also keeps in touch with Roth, Wingo, Adam Matthews and others.
"You make a lot of really good friends in college and some of my best friends were on that team," he said. "As you grow up, your life and career and family take you different places and you do your best to stay in contact but every time I get around those guys, everything comes back and it's like we never left.
"It was a great, great group of guys and it was so much fun to be a part of that team and be in that clubhouse."
Like most former Gamecocks, Merrifield still follows the Gamecock program and likes what he sees. He's met new head coach Mark Kingston a couple of times and calls him "an awesome guy." Before the college season started, Merrifield could already the ingredients of another postseason team.
"I think he really knows what he's doing and he's got good players coming in and I think he's going to be good for the program," Merrifield said. "Obviously, Coach Tanner knows what he's doing as the AD. If there's one sport that he's capable of hiring a coach for, it's definitely baseball. He knows what winners look like."
— The full version of this story orginially appeared in the April issue of Spurs & Feathers. To see the complete story, check out the online version of the April magazine.