When practice and intrasquad scrimmages came to an end for the University of South Carolina baseball team in the fall of 2009, Matt Price didn't know where he stood.
"I did not do well in fall intrasquads, and the coaches were actually looking at …
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"I did not do well in fall intrasquads, and the coaches were actually looking at me to be the Sunday starter that season," Price said. "When I went into the fall meeting with (Gamecock head coach Ray) Tanner, he was like, 'Price, I don't know what we're going to do with you. Honestly, your fall intrasquad was not good. Right now, we thought you were going to be a guy for us and start on Sundays, but I don't even know if you're going to make the 25-man roster (for the 2010 season).' That's what he told me."
Fast forward to June of 2010. Price was the redshirt freshman closer for the national champion, picking up the win in USC's 2-1, 11-inning win over UCLA in Game 2 of the championship series of the College World Series.
Price, the former standout right-handed pitcher for Sumter High School and the American Legion Sumter P-15's, finds it hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Carolina won what would be the first of two consecutive national titles.
"It feels like just yesterday I was out on the field with those guys, being in a dogpile and enjoying all of those moments we had together," Price said.
It was a season that started with uncertainty for Price, but ended with a treasured national title for the South Carolina athletics program. Price recalls how the season evolved for both him and his team.
After the frankness of Tanner's statement about his status in the program, Price went to work to changing minds.
So I took that to heart," said Price, who would be a redshirt freshman after getting a medical redshirt in 2009 after a collision with The Citadel's Richard Jones, Price's old battery mate with the P-15's. "I got after it with (fellow pitcher) Blake Cooper in the weight room over Christmas break. That Christmas break changed my life. I came back in the spring and I was a different pitcher."
However, it took Tanner and pitching coach Mark Calvi a while to see that though.
"At the beginning of the season, I didn't know what my role was," said Price, who now works for the Sumter Police Department and was selected to DI Baseball.com All-Decade team in December. "I was kind of hit or miss on coming out of the pen. Closing games, I wouldn't say the coaches didn't believe in me, but they wanted me to prove myself. I didn't do that in the fall intrasquads, anything like that, so I had to prove myself during the season."
Price slowly began to do that, making six relief appearances before the Southeastern Conference schedule began, including getting the Gamecocks' only win in the 3-game series against archrival Clemson. His first of 10 saves on the season came in the finale of USC's SEC series opener against Tennessee. He went on to make at least one relief appearance in each of Carolina's 10 SEC series. He had a 3-0 record and seven saves at the end of the regular season.
South Carolina wasn't riding a wave of momentum as it prepared to play host to a 4-team regional in Columbia. The Gamecocks lost two out of three to Florida in their SEC series finale, causing them to finish one game behind the Gators for the best overall record in the conference at 21-9.
To make matters worse, USC went 0-2 in the SEC tournament, a venue where it has historically struggled. That left it with a 43-15 record as it headed into the postseason.
Price recalls that Tanner was not happy at all with his team at that point. Upon returning to Columbia, he began to put his team through 2-a-day practices, an unusual practice for late in the season. After a few days, practice returned to normal. Price thinks it helped him and his teammates regain their focus.
"We started building that chemistry and everything started working out," he said.
It was hard to see that, however, in the regional opener against Bucknell, at least in the early going. The fourth-seeded Bison led 5-1 after scoring three runs in the top of the sixth inning, causing a growing uneasiness to rumble through the stands among USC fans.
I love South Carolina fans, the best fans in the world, but you can always feel that uneasiness from them," Price said. "But at the same time, as a group, as a team, we knew we had that game. Just like the whole season, anytime we fought back and won games, late in the inning, our team mentality was we were never giving up."
A downpour of rain caused the game to be delayed. Price believes that time helped him and his teammates right the ship.
"When we got in the locker room during that rain delay, at first we were kind of feeling the pressure," he said. "But we were like, 'You know what? Forget it.' We started getting a little bit looser, and we went back out on the field and the story tells itself after that."
Carolina pushed across two runs in the bottom of the inning to cut the lead to 5-3 and added another in the seventh to make it a 1-run deficit. South Carolina finally took its first lead in the eighth on a 2-run home run by Jackie Bradley Jr. Adrian Morales added a 3-run blast later in the inning for what would be a 9-5 victory.
USC went on to beat The Citadel 9-4 the next day with Price pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings to close the game out. Carolina won the regional by topping Virginia Tech 10-2.
South Carolina was having to travel to play its Super Regional, but it was only about 2 hours and it was in the state - to Myrtle Beach and BB&T Coastal Field - to face Coastal Carolina. The winner of the best-of-3 series would travel to Omaha, Nebraska, to play in the CWS.
Price remembers the energy that filled the stadium in that series.
"Playing at Coastal, in that environment against those guys, it was something else," he said. "It was very exciting. Both sides of the fans, awesome. It's one of the best memories I have, playing at that stadium."
And for good reason. Price pulled off one of the greatest - if not the greatest -- escape acts in Gamecock history.
He entered the game in the eighth inning with USC clinging to a 4-3 lead, but with the bases loaded and no outs. Price came on and struck out the first two batters he faced and got the final out on a comebacker to the mound.
"I was ready to go before all that, but my number wasn't called," said Price, who had two other pitchers come on before him in the inning in relief of Cooper. "When I went in there, Coach Calvi, the pitching coach, was like, 'Hey, Price, let's stop the damage as much as we can. Get this first out, then get you a groundball, get you a double play.' I was like, 'Yes sir, let's do it.'
"When I struck out the first two guys, I was like, 'Yeah, don't let up.' When I got that groundball (and threw it to first baseman Christian) Walker, that's one of the biggest moments I've had in my baseball career."
Price gave up a hit and a walk in the ninth but ended up retiring the Chanticleers to pick up the save in the 4-3 win.
In Game 2, South Carolina found itself trailing 9-7 entering the bottom of the eighth inning. That was before Walker cranked a 3-run home run for a 10-9 lead. Price came on in relief to pitch a scoreless ninth for the save and send the Gamecocks packing to Omaha.
USC rolled into the final CWS at Rosenblatt Stadium with momentum and confidence, but it knew the task in front of it would not be easy.
"It's kind of a back-and-forth battle with that question because you want to say the right thing like, 'Hey, we knew we were going to go out there and win it,' " Price said. "But at the same time, our mentality was winning the World Series, winning that first game and then win that following game. One game, one pitch, one at-bat."
South Carolina actually didn't win that first game, losing to Oklahoma 4-3. It followed that up with an easy 11-4 win over Arizona State, scoring eight runs in the second inning. That would be the first of a record 22 consecutive NCAA postseason wins, but it came oh so close to being ended the following day.
The Gamecocks were facing Oklahoma again and had scored a run in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the game at 1-1, forcing extra innings. Price came on in the ninth and went on to pitch three perfect innings with five strikeouts. He was pulled after the 11th inning with the game still tied at 1-1. The Sooners were able to score a run in the top of the 12th to again set up another one of those memorable moments.
With two outs and Robert Beary, who had singled, on second base, Bradley was down to his final strike before singling to score Beary with the tying run. After a walk to Jeffrey Jones moved Bradley to second, he scored on a Brady Thomas RBI single, allowing USC to see another day.
"It was something special," Price said. "I threw like three innings before they took me out. I remember sitting in the dugout and Oklahoma scored. I said, 'No, this can't be it.'
"I never doubted our team and our ability to go out there and fight every pitch and win a game. So when Jackie got that hit and all that fell into place, it was something special."
That comeback victory set up a showdown with bitter rival Clemson for a spot in the championship series. The Tigers were undefeated in the CWS, needing to beat South Carolina once to advance. The Gamecocks, of course, needed two wins.
"They knew what they had to do, and we knew what we had to do," Price said. We've played these guys before, we know what we're going up against, they're a great team. We've just got to go out there and fight and do whatever we can to win that first game."
And what Carolina did was send Michael Roth, a situational left-handed reliever, to the mound for the start.
It was Roth's first start of the season, and he went on to pitch a complete game in a 5-1 win. He allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out four.
"Roth, unbelievable, magical moment in College World Series history," Price said. "One of the best performances I've seen from Roth ever. It was just one of those things.
"I think it (the staff's strategy) was more of 'Hey Roth, do as much as you can and the rest of the bullpen will be ready."
It never came to that though, giving the bullpen an extra day of rest as South Carolina prepared to face Clemson again the following day.
"It kind of clicked for us, and then once we got to that second game I felt like more of the pressure was on Clemson. We just got beat and now we've got to try and win again. We just went out there with the same mentality of 'Hey, we've got to go out there and try to win this game one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time."
It was a back-and-forth affair between the teams in Game 2. USC scored a run in the bottom of the first before Clemson tied it in the third. The Gamecocks made it 2-1 in the fourth only to see the Tigers tie it in the seventh. USC scored twice in the bottom of the inning to make it 4-2.
Price came on in relief of starter Sam Dyson in the seventh to get out of the inning. Clemson touched him up for a run in the eighth to make it 4-3, but Price pitched a scoreless ninth to get the win and send the Gamecocks into the championship series.
South Carolina wasn't given much of a chance against UCLA, which had a dominant pitching staff led lefty Gerrit Cole, who had been a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft earlier in the month.
That, however, didn't deter the Gamecocks. USC touched up Cole for 11 hits in his seven innings, scoring five runs. Meanwhile, Cooper pitched eight innings, striking out 10 Bruins while allowing just three hits and one run in the 7-1 victory.
"We knew all the stuff that was being said, but we knew that's not going to happen," Price said. "We went up against one of the best pitchers that's in the MLB right now in Gerrit Cole, and then we went up against the lefty (Rob Rasmussen, who was a second-round pick in the same draft). Those two guys were outstanding pitchers."
The Gamecocks had a much tougher go of it against Rasmussen. The game was scoreless until the fifth inning when UCLA touched Roth up for a run. USC didn't tied the game until the eight, pushing across a run against a reliever.
The contest went into extra innings after Price came out in the ninth to record a strikeout with two outs and the bases loaded. He went out to toss two more scoreless innings to set the stage for Whit Merrifield's CWS-winning single with one out in the bottom of the 11th to score Scott Wingo.
Price got the victory, but if USC had not scored, he wasn't going to get another shot that day.
I was sitting in the dugout at that time, and Calvi comes up to me and says, 'Price, we're going to go with (Jose) Mata next,' " Price said. I had thrown I don't know how many innings before that. He said, 'We need to make sure you're fresh for the next day (should USC lose and a third game was needed). I was like 'Come on, coach. You can't take the ball away from me now.'
"I was thankful Whit got that hit because as a closer you want the ball in your hand for the game. I didn't want anybody else to take that away from me, but at the same time, I'm glad he got that hit. It was just awesome."
Needless to say, that touched off a massive celebration on the field of Rosenblatt Stadium. Price said it took a few minutes for him to put into perspective what had just happened.
At first you run out there, get in that dogpile, and you don't think anything of it. We just won the national championship, and we're all out there celebrating," he said. "When it really hit me is when we were watching the big screen, the video board, after all the ceremony stuff was done, watching the fireworks. I was watching our seniors tearing up, It kind of makes you think, I'm glad I got this done for these guys."
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