Commentary: Home cooking tastes best for USC

June 3, 2012 

There are few automatic things in sports. But the South Carolina baseball team winning an NCAA regional at home may be the closest thing.

The Gamecocks have played 14 regionals at either Sarge Frye Field or Carolina Stadium since they first hosted in 1975, and they have won 13 of them, including 12 in a row. During that span, they’ve posted a 44-5 record in home regionals and haven’t lost a game since 2002, when they fell to North Carolina before bouncing back to advance.

“Wherever you go, whatever sport it may be, teams are always a little bit better at home. We feel like we’re a pretty good team all of the time, but we’re better at home as well,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “Our guys have played with tremendous awareness, and our fans elevate that. They don’t want us to lose, and they try to do their part to keep our guys going and pick us up. It’s the best environment you can possibly be in.”

The players also understand how much it means. USC senior left-hander Michael Roth was a freshman on the 2009 team that had to travel to East Carolina for regional play, which the Pirates won with the help of a boisterous home crowd. Since that time, Roth and his teammates have won all nine regional games at Carolina Stadium.

“It’s a completely different deal,” Roth said. “You could see it when you look at the stadium and see that one little section of Clemson fans and the rest of the 8,000 people were cheering us on. The energy in the ninth inning (in Sunday’s 4-3 clinching win) definitely helped us surge forward. It’s special to be here, and we don’t take that for granted. There’s no better feeling.”

And while the home atmosphere gives USC a lift, it also provides another hurdle for visiting teams. The Tigers played solid baseball, but they came up one run shy in both games against South Carolina.

“Going on the road is always difficult, especially here,” Clemson first baseman Richie Shaffer said. “This is a really hostile environment. They get a lot of fans out, and they’re very passionate.”

The fans were so loud on the game’s final play that USC right fielder Adam Matthews couldn’t tell if center fielder Evan Marzilli was telling him to catch the fly ball or calling him off.

The last time the Gamecocks lost a home regional was 1976, when they lost to Clemson and Furman after beating Virginia Tech. But the Tigers couldn’t make it happen this time.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett knows if the Tigers had won a handful more regular-season games, they might have been at Doug Kingsmore Stadium for regional play.

“We talk about it all the time. We’ve got to get a little better in those areas so we can be hosting at our place,” Leggett said. “It’s difficult to play in front of 8,500 people and 200 of them are Clemson people. It’s an advantage to host a regional. There’s no question about it.”

Tanner always has stressed winning enough games in order to play at home at the most important time of the season. Roth said the players have embraced that mentality over the long haul of 56 regular-season games.

“We talk about winning our midweek games. Those are really important for us to win so we can get to that 40-win mark, which is normally when you host a regional,” Roth said.

Staying at home allows teams to stay in their routines, avoid traveling and receive maximum fan support. Junior first baseman Christian Walker has played in three home regionals and has yet to lose a game. With the size of Carolina Stadium’s crowds and its creature comforts for the players, the two-time defending national champions are even tougher to beat.

“There’s not a better park in the country, from our grounds crew to our fans. It’s just a great place to play. We’re comfortable here,” Walker said. “That’s huge. We get our fans involved in the game and not many teams like playing with that kind of pressure on them. It’s a great feeling to have them behind you. Now we’ve got a lot of momentum going into next weekend.”

This latest regional victory has them moving on to another Super Regional at Carolina Stadium this weekend. USC also has fared well in Super Regional play, winning four out of five while compiling a 9-3 record.

You almost could call that automatic, too.

- Neil White

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