Florida, South Carolina bring swagger

OMAHA, Neb. -- The mutual respect between South Carolina's and Florida's baseball teams comes from having an awful lot in common.

Both came into the year with huge bull's-eyes on their backs. South Carolina was the defending national champion; Florida a preseason favorite.

Both reigned supreme in the nation's toughest conference, tied with Vanderbilt for the SEC East regular-season title and enter the College World Series' best-of-three championship series with 53 wins. Both also overcame some frustrating adversity along the way.

South Carolina had serious concerns about its starting pitching rotation going into the season but knew its lineup returned a ton of experience.

Then Jackie Bradley Jr., the 2010 CWS most outstanding player, went down with a wrist injury and missed 26 straight games. He made a surprising return to the lineup in time for the World Series and has four hits in 14 at-bats.

Florida lost starting pitcher Brian Johnson to a concussion in late May and closer Austin Maddox to a sprained foot earlier this month, but the biggest blow came in the super regionals.

Mississippi State tied up its series with Florida on a walk-off homer in Game 2. The loss left the Gators' season teetering on the brink, and UF coach Kevin O'Sullivan admitted it "just ripped my heart out."

"You can't draw that up in any practice schedule. You can't script that," O'Sullivan said. "Unfortunately, you have to go through some very tough times if you want to win a national championship. And I think that helped us an awful lot."

And right now, both Florida and South Carolina are rolling through this College World Series with 3-0 records. They'll face off Monday (ESPN/ESPN3.com, 8 p.m. ET) in a matchup that O'Sullivan has deemed "swag vs. swag."

"They play with a great deal of confidence," he said. "That's the thing that's probably going to be the most interesting thing these next two or three games -- we're playing with a great deal of confidence as well."

South Carolina took two of three earlier this season in Gainesville. What's going to make the difference this time around? So far in this CWS, it's been small ball and shutdown pitching.

Florida has already taken down three of the top pitchers at this year's CWS: Texas ace Taylor Jungmann and Vanderbilt's Grayson Garvin and Sonny Gray. Jungmann and Gray were top-20 picks in this year's MLB draft, and Garvin went in the first compensatory round.

Now the Gators face Forrest Koumas, a freshman who hasn't pitched in the CWS and has only one start in the NCAA tournament.

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner admits he's a tad worried about how his untested No. 3 starter will handle being on the biggest stage under the brightest lights.

"His stuff is good enough. He's certainly talented enough," Tanner said, "but as a coach you are concerned about if he's able to harness his emotions and all those things that come into play."

Koumas' first career start came on short notice against Florida back on March 26. The 5-foot-10 right-hander gave up two hits and an unearned run in six innings but took a no-decision in the Gators' 2-1 win.

But with closer Matt Price unavailable after going 5⅔ innings against Virginia on Friday, and with No. 1 starter Michael Roth the likely but unofficial starter for Game 2, the pressure on Koumas and South Carolina's bullpen is considerable.

Heightening the stakes in Game 1 is the presence of Florida ace Hudson Randall, who's 11-3 with a 2.24 ERA this season and has a 1.26 ERA in his two career starts against the Gamecocks. He took the mound on the same day Koumas debuted in March and tossed a complete-game, five-hit win.

"I see him a lot in my sleep," Tanner said with a chuckle. "He's special. He's fun to watch. His velocity has probably increased a little bit, but his pitchability is off the charts."

In a CWS that's produced a record-low seven home runs in 12 games at Omaha's brand-new TD Ameritrade Park, Florida and South Carolina have both found ways to turn small hits into big ones.

The Gamecocks have six sacrifice hits in their three games, and they ended their 13-inning affair with Virginia with a single, two sacrifice bunts and two Cavaliers throwing errors.

Florida is No. 5 nationally with 67 home runs but has only one in Omaha so far. Against Vanderbilt on Friday, the Gators' two-run eighth to pull ahead 6-4 was sparked by a single and two bunts for singles.

"I think offensively it's been exciting: The grinding out of the at-bats, the hit-and-runs, the drags, the pushes, the defending the bunt," O'Sullivan said. "Even the walk is now a huge part of the offense."

If South Carolina is feeling the burden of trying to repeat, Florida's got it just as bad. The Gators have never won a national title, and the last time they got this far, they dropped both games in the 2005 championship series against Texas.

Drop the pressure and expectations and comparisons, though, and this is a College World Series championship round with two battle-tested teams that love to compete.

Play these games in a sandlot, Tanner said, and take away the 20,000-plus fans, the national TV audience and the reporters. He's not sure either team would play any different.

"They love to play, we love to play," he said. "Yeah, there's a lot more at stake now than there ever was before. But it's really genuine baseball."

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