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May 7, 2012

Trust leaves Price on the mound

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Having a big lead certainly helped, but in the end, it was trust that made the decision.

Matt Price had been so good so many times before that coach Ray Tanner just couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger, even when Price was suffering through a career-worst performance.

"We were not afraid to make some pitches once we got the lead," Tanner said after Sunday's wild 10-7 series-clinching win at No. 18 Arkansas. "On the flipside, Matt didn't walk anybody. He kept grinding it out."

Everybody in Baum Stadium on Sunday knew that with No. 5 South Carolina short on pitching, the Gamecocks were going to coax what they could out of starter Forrest Koumas and then go to the money. Price was a starter earlier this season and has thrown three or four innings of "closing" so many times that he may as well be a starter now.

Tanner said as much after Saturday's game, that Price would pitch probably after the fifth inning on Sunday. As it turned out, USC got far more than hoped for out of Koumas until the sophomore finally got himself in a jam that Tanner felt was unable to be handled - at least, unable to be handled by anybody but the man that had saved the Gamecocks' bacon so many times over the past three seasons.

Koumas went to the dugout and Price came in from the bullpen. With the bases loaded and one out, even the greatest closer in history would give up a run, but USC was looking to trade runs for outs. The Gamecocks got another wonderful surprise when Derrick Bleeker lifted a fly ball to right that looked destined to get a run home, until Adam Matthews caught it and gunned Jacob Mahan at the plate for an inning-ending double play.

When USC erupted for four runs in the seventh, most figured the game was over. It was Price on the mound, for crying out loud - he closed out two Super Regional clinchers and one College World Series clincher. This was certainly no problem.

Bo Bigham singled to start the seventh. Brian Anderson followed with a single. Jacob Morris stung one past Price to center field, after a wild pitch advanced both runners. With two runs in and the Gamecocks' lead cut in half, Jake Wise kept it going with another single.

The smattering of USC fans begin to look at each other and wonder what exactly was going on. The Arkansas faithful began to taunt Price and cheer whenever another batter reached - which happened when Mahan singled to drive in a run, but incredibly, Matthews threw out another runner at the plate to keep the score 4-3.

Price stalked to the dugout, glowering and unhappy. It was OK, though, when USC pulverized Arkansas' relief crew for six runs in the eighth and took a 10-3 lead.

Suddenly armed with an un-blow-able lead, Price returned to the mound.

And almost blew it.

The Razorbacks scored four more runs for the duration, with a couple of other hits robbed by Evan Marzilli's twin diving catches. Price finished for the win, but was angrily chewing on a dandelion stem afterward as he was consoled by pitching coach Jerry Meyers and Tanner.

The Gamecocks' career leader in appearances and saves had just been rocked for 10 hits and seven runs, the worst outing of his career. Sure, he got the win, but … man.

"I can't explain what happened, except for me missing my spots," Price said. "I felt like I had my stuff, but they were a disciplined team at the plate. They were taking balls that were balls and they were hitting the strikes.

"Coaches trust me and believe in me and offense came through at the end of the day. They just kept throwing me back out there just to get this W."

It seemed rather elementary. Arkansas was taking Price's fastball and slider when it was off the mark and when he got behind, rather than walk them, Price wound up and threw over the middle, trusting in his defense. Matthews and Marzilli made some spectacular plays ("I owe them a steak dinner," Price said), but more often than not, Arkansas was lining everything through every gap in the infield.

The Gamecocks won, and it was easy to chalk it up to a bad day. It's still Price, the hero of so many games who almost every time he came in from the pen the past three years, slammed the door so hard that opponents were feeling it weeks later.

But there was the wonder - why did Tanner leave Price out there? Even with a seven-run lead that became five and then three, with Tyler Webb warming during the ninth inning, why?

Because Tanner, a coach who values the contributions of veteran players, trusted Price to get it done. Which he did.

"It crossed my mind (to pull Price), but as long as he's throwing strikes, that would be the reason he could stay out there," Tanner said. "He told us in the hotel he was good for four or five innings today. He didn't locate, he'll tell you that, but we got the win."

After switching from starter back to closer, Price has had some nervous moments this year but still has four wins and seven saves. His velocity hasn't been what it was, but he's still getting it done, and there's no mistaking the charge that runs through the USC dugout when it's in the late innings in a close game, the gate swings open and ol' No. 22, the master, comes jogging through it.

Price will put it past him and Price will continue to close (although not on Wednesday, if needed at Furman. Tanner already said that Price and Webb will rest that game). It was a bad day, one bad day.

Tanner and Price are each hoping that there won't be another.

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