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June 27, 2012

Always Right

OMAHA, Neb. - The shock wasn't so much that South Carolina lost. To win three straight national championships just isn't done these days.

The shock was that Matt Price, after donning his red cape and saving the day so many times over so many years, turned out to be human after all.

Brandon Dixon's two-strike base hit scored the go-ahead run during Monday's 4-1 season-ending loss to Arizona and the Gamecocks couldn't covert on a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the ninth, leaving them as national runner-up. Not a bad prize in the grand scheme, but not the prize they wanted after winning back-to-back national championships.

The real kick was afterward. Price, saddled with the loss after giving up that hit, sat at the table with his head bowed, grizzled face barely peeking from under his cap. Everyone in that room knew that he would rather be anywhere but there, and everyone knew that if he could avoid talking about it, he would.

But everyone also had their jobs to do, so Price, a closer to the end, took a deep breath, turned and faced the cameras. Even Mariano Rivera blew a save every now and then, and Price was forced to accept the closer's mantra - you can be perfect 50 straight times, but the 51st may get you.

And in Price's case, that last will almost definitely be the last of his collegiate career.

"It sucks," Price said, with all the subtlety of a hammer to the head. "Leadoff guy hit a first-pitch slider. It was a good pitch, bounced over LB (Dantzler)'s head. That was luck of the draw. They bunted the guy over, the next guy gets a base hit.

"To see that winning run score, it just sucks even worse."

Dixon became the first to do what nobody else ever has - score on Price in Omaha. Price had gone 20 1-3 straight innings at the College World Series without allowing a run, and his appearance on Monday left him tied with J. Brent Cox (2003-05) for the most appearances in CWS history (13).

Although Price has a year of eligibility left, he is fully expected to accept his seventh-round draft selection by Baltimore and depart USC for professional ball. After setting the career saves record at USC and in the SEC, tying for sixth on the NCAA's career list, tying for second in CWS history for career saves and holding the record for most CWS games finished, he has nothing left to prove on the collegiate level.

The only factor that could potentially convince him to come back would be to erase the disappointment of Monday. After so many times where Price had locked down a game, so many pitches where he had owned the batter, one got away.

"I was mad, upset, emotion was going haywire," Price said. "I didn't want to let the team down, and I felt like I did."

Price was beating himself up because that's what closers do. They never see the flipside - without a dominant closer, the team likely wouldn't be in a big situation. They only see the one time where they couldn't get it done.

Monday doesn't erase the indelible mark Price left on the Gamecocks. He'll be the standard for years to come. With the way that he and Michael Roth led USC's pitching corps over three straight CWS appearances, he'll also go down in history as the face that epitomized college baseball in the dead-bat era - pitchers would have to win championships, and Price always did more than his share.

It started with that moment against Coastal Carolina, USC trying to make a 4-3 lead last in Game 1 of a Super Regional. Called on in an impossible situation, bases full of Chanticleers and nobody out, Price came trotting in.

"I was thinking, 'Bases loaded, I hate doing this to this guy,' but then I thought, 'He loves this,'" former pitching coach Mark Calvi said then. "He's not himself when we're up 8-2. Matt is better than who he really is when the game's on the line.

"He was the only guy in the whole stadium that wasn't nervous. You could see the look in his eye - 'Give me the ball, and leave.'"

Price struck out the first two batters and got a comebacker for the third. He finished the game, finished the next one as well, and began a stretch of three straight CWS-clinchers, where he was tackled by three different catchers.

Price was also on the mound when Florida's final batter flew out to Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field, finally breaking into a grin as he tossed his glove in the air and waited for the celebration. Throw in a mini-celebration when he closed out USC's SEC regular-season championship at Alabama in 2011, and it's been a fine career.

"They've tried their hardest and they've been very, very successful on this stage," coach Ray Tanner said. "I'm not sure that … well, it would take a long time for two guys to have as many appearances, as many innings and good success that they've had in Omaha at the College World Series. These guys have been very special."

The hit and the loss don't define Price. He'll always be remembered for the way he approached his role. From being told that he'd never make it to reinventing himself as a scowling, squinting fireballer, Price is a Gamecock legend.

Not a smiler by nature, Price definitely didn't feel like it on Monday. But brighter days are always ahead - if anything, 20 years from now, USC's closer will be asked to be what Matt Price was.

"Past couple of years have been great with the team," Price monotoned. "You remember some key things about winning, but what sticks with you the most is what happens when you lose. It was tough, failure's a thing of baseball, but you got to get it out your head and move on."

Price stayed until the last reporter got his quota. Then he shouldered up his backpack, picked up his runner-up gift and walked down the TD Ameritrade Park hallway, one last time, intimidating until the very end.

From Sumter to Columbia, to the bright lights of Omaha, even in defeat, Matt Price was the same.

Fightin' Gamecock.

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