GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – It hurt.
All one had to do was watch the Gators slowly pack their belongings in the visiting dugout at TD Ameritrade Park on Tuesday night to understand how much.
Players hugged coaches. They hugged the team’s support personnel. They hugged each other.
The ride was over and it came to a screeching stop.
On the field South Carolina celebrated its second consecutive national championship after a 5-2 win in Game 2 of the College World Series championship final. The Gators came to Omaha wanting to experience what the Gamecocks first got to a year ago.
They were denied by a South Carolina team that played better than they did.
“They did what they needed to do,’’ junior outfielder Preston Tucker said. “We didn’t.”
When the Gamecocks needed a clutch hit, they got it. When they needed to make a defensive play in the field, they made it. When they needed to move a runner up or get a key out, they did it.
“They earned this one,’’ Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “They were a little bit better than us in all phases. They pitched a little bit better. They hit a little bit better. They played a little bit better defense.’’
The Gators arrived here as the favorites in the eyes of many who cover college baseball year-round. They hit for power. They hit for average. They play good defense. Oh, and all those arms. The Gators’ pitching staff was arguably the deepest in the nation from top to bottom.
That made the Gators the team to beat to many close observers.
Florida made it look easy in their first three games, beating Texas and then winning back-to-back games against SEC rival Vanderbilt to advance to the CWS final.
Finally, a true SEC East champion would be crowned. The Gators and Gamecocks stacked up pretty evenly and the best-of-three series would determine the 2011 national champion.
Once the first pitch was delivered Monday night, it soon became clear that the Gamecocks had something on their side hard to define. Call it magic, call it fate, call it whatever you like, but the Gamecocks had that little something that only championship teams have.
And they made plays every time they had to.
Meanwhile, the Gators’ potent lineup, the one that rocked opposing pitchers all season, suddenly looked normal. Florida finished 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position in the two losses, including Tuesday night’s defeat to Gamecocks ace Michael Roth.
Unlike Texas’ Taylor Jungmann and Vanderbilt’s Grayson Garvin and Sonny Gray – the Gators beat all three first-round picks to advance to the championship series – Roth is more of a finesse pitcher. He kept the Gators guessing with an assortment of off-speed pitches Tuesday before finally turning the game over to relievers John Taylor and Matt Price.
All those clutch hits the Gators ripped during the regular season and NCAA Tournament went on vacation two games too early.
“We stuck with our approach,’’ senior second baseman Josh Adams said. “That’s the game of baseball. Some days you can come out on top and other days you look like a fool. ‘’
Sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, the SEC Player of the Year, entered Tuesday night’s game 3-for-16 in the CWS. His bat finally woke up in Game 2 with a homer, double and single.
But he needed help the way the rest of the lineup needed help in Game 1. It just seemed that all the parts stopped working correctly at the most inopportune time. The Gators stranded 17 runners in the two games while scoring only three.
“I’m sure some people wish they had some pitches back, but you stick to your approach and just let the rest fall in place,’’ Zunino said. “We didn’t execute very well with runners in scoring position, but that’s part of the game.’’
The Gators failed to execute in other areas, too.
In Game 2, normally reliable shortstop Nolan Fontana made a costly error that allowed a run to score and keep an inning alive. With Roth looking vulnerable in the first inning and with one out and a pair of runners on base, Tucker and Adams flew out on the first pitch they saw.
The Gators got the lead-off man on base in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings without getting a run home. Freshman starter Karsten Whitson walked a pair of batters in the third that came around to score.
“I kind of started nibbling a little bit,’’ Whitson said. “It wasn’t a very good execution of pitches on my part.’’
You get the idea. It wasn’t a tidal wave that washed Florida’s championship dreams away, but more like steady rain drops that keep adding up.
O’Sullivan felt good about his team’s chances when they arrived at the ballpark for Game 2. Afterward, he accepted reality and hugs from some of his players.
“They came into the game in a really good frame of mind,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We just didn’t do enough, and that’s the bottom line. They just did a little bit more.
“When you get down to a series like this and both teams are fighting for a national championship, that’s what it comes down to. It comes down to a play here, a play there. They played great defense. They just did a little bit more to win a championship.’’
In the end, the bottom line was this: It hurt.
All one had to do was look at Zunino’s red eyes. Or wait out Adams in the postgame press conference as he tried to regain his composure to answer a question.
The Gators came to the CWS hoping to return home with the first national championship trophy in school history.
They leave with another national runner-up trophy like in 2005 when they were swept by Texas in the CWS final.
“It’s just an empty feeling,’’ Zunino said. “Unless you come out here and win it, you are always going to have that feeling. When you can’t achieve the ultimate goal you go after, you just feel empty.’’