OMAHA, Neb. — Ask South Carolina center fielder Jackie Bradley what impresses him about UCLA before the start of the NCAA championship series, and his response is a quick one.
"Have some arms, I'll tell you that. They can really pitch," Bradley said. "But they're offensive. They've been putting it together this whole tournament and getting a lot of timely hits."
Ask UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, one of those dynamics arms Bradley referenced and the Game 1 starter in the best-of-three series, what impresses him about the Gamecocks, and he gives the kind of effusive praise that would make a television commentator blush.
"I've watched them throughout the World Series. They're an extremely resilient team. I think it's a good word to describe them," Cole said. "They have quite a few tremendous players, a lot of big-game players. That complete game that (Michael) Roth pitched was unbelievable. That base hit by Jackie had to keep them in the World Series was just - you know, those moments are priceless."
Both teams want to add one more priceless moment to their seasons. Neither has won a national championship in baseball.
The Gamecocks (52-16) had to win four consecutive games in the losers' bracket, including two against archrival Clemson, after an opening loss to Oklahoma to reach the title series, while the Bruins (51-15), the No. 6 national seed out of the Pac-10, had to defeat a Cinderella TCU team Saturday in a do-or-die situation
UCLA will be the home team in Game 1 and the if-necessary game, while the Gamecocks will serve as the home team in Game 2. The games will start at 7:30 p.m.
The Bruins have never reached the championship in baseball in their three appearances in Omaha, while this will be USC's fourth visit to the finals in their nine CWS trips. The Gamecocks lost to Texas in 1975 and 2002 and to Arizona State in 1977, under a one-game championship format.
USC coach Ray Tanner, whose 2002 team had to come back for a Saturday afternoon title appearance after a Friday night elimination game, likes this format better, where the teams get a day off before a best-of-three series.
"I think it's good for the game. You're talking about a national championship, and eight teams get here, two survive. It's the right way to do it," Tanner said. "Two teams left, best-of-three, you get a variety of pitchers out there in the games, whether it's a two-game or three-game set. We're all used to the series mentality."
But Tanner knows it's not going to be easy against UCLA, which has its pitching set up better by having to play one fewer game than the Gamecocks. The Bruins will send a rested Cole (10-3, 3.26 ERA, 151 strikeouts in 116 innings), who hasn't pitched since beating TCU last Monday, to the mound. The sophomore, who turned down the New York Yankees after being drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft, consistently throws in the mid-90s.
"Well, I heard some of his pitches, and they were going through the zone so fast I didn't see a lot of them. He's a tremendous pitcher," Tanner said.
Tanner's tremendous pitcher, senior right-hander Blake Cooper (12-2, 2.86 ERA, 116 strikeouts in 129 innings), may not be ready to start tonight. He threw 67 pitches against Oklahoma last Sunday and 97 more in Thursday's second game against the Sooners. If he's ready to go, he will take the mound again on three day's rest. If he isn't, freshman left-hander Tyler Webb or senior right-hander Jay Brown will get the call.
Both starters will face similar lineups that don't have a lot of big-game stars with gaudy statistics but do bring depth and a workmanlike approach to the plate. UCLA coach John Savage has developed an admiration for South Carolina's team over the past week.
"I just see a lot of tools. I can tell you that, just by watching the players. They're fast, athletic, good arms. I see bigger, stronger players. I see tremendous talent over there," Savage said. "Their pitching reminds us of ourselves a little bit. Very good ERA. They have ton of depth. They strike some people out. They don't walk people. They pitched the right way."
"I just think it shows the character of this team. We're a team that never gives up and never quits," junior outfielder Whit Merrifield said. "And we knew we had a lot of season left. And sure enough, we're going to be here until the last day of the college season."
Today: 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Tuesday: 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Wednesday (if necessary): 7:30 p.m., ESPN