Matt Price will forever be used as the measuring stick when they talk about great escapes at the College World Series.
The South Carolina reliever worked out of bases-loaded jams in the 10th, 12th and 13th innings Friday night to set the stage for the Gamecocks’ 3-2 win over Virginia that moved them into the championship series for the second straight year.
Price’s most dramatic escape came in the 13th, when the Cavaliers loaded the bases with no outs. A strikeout and a line-drive double play ended the threat, and South Carolina scored an unearned run in the bottom half of the inning to register its second walk-off victory at TD Ameritrade Park.
“He was able to make pitches when he needed to get some big outs,’’ South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “He’s been in so many situations in the last few years. I can’t imagine another bullpen guy in the country being in as many tough situations as Matt has been in.
“I’m not saying he’s comfortable there, but he’s accustomed to having some jams to get out of. It was difficult to get any runs. We got some guys on, but we had trouble getting them in. And we were very fortunate we were able to score one there at the end.’’
Price pitched the final 5.2 innings of the win that drew a record crowd of 25,882 and broke the NCAA tournament record for consecutive victories. The Gamecocks have not lost since their first game in Omaha in 2010, running off six straight wins last June to claim their first title and going 8-0 in the tournament this season.
Four of the Omaha wins have come in walk-off fashion — two last season at Rosenblatt Stadium and two this season in the new home of the CWS. South Carolina posted a 5-4 win in its 2011 CWS opener against Texas A&M, then defeated Virginia 7-1 on Tuesday.
The Gamecocks, who will be facing Southeastern Conference rival Florida in the best-of-three series that begins Monday, used a pair of Virginia errors to push across the winning run in the four-hour-and-26-minute marathon.
Virginia relievers Kyle Crockett and Branden Kline had shut out South Carolina since it took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning. Cody Winiarski took over to start the 13th and gave up a single to Brady Thomas.
Pinch-runner Adam Matthews was safe at second when Winiarski threw wildly after fielding Peter Mooney’s bunt. The same thing happened again when Winiarski, after fielding Robert Beary’s sacrifice bunt, rushed his throw to try to get Matthews at third.
“I thought there was definitely a window,’’ Winiarski said. “We definitely want to be aggressive off the mound and the ball was right to me.’’
The ball got away from Virginia third baseman Steven Proscia and bounced out of play as Matthews scrambled to his feet and raced home with the winning run.
“I didn’t know where the ball was, but Coach was telling me, ‘Go, go, go,’ ’’ Matthews said. “It worked out good.’’
South Carolina would never have been in position to win had it not been for Price, a junior right-hander who had not pitched more than three innings in any of his previous 33 appearances.
He entered the game with a runner at second and one out in the eighth. Price got John Hicks to hit a grounder to Mooney, but the Gamecocks shortstop let the ball get by him, allowing Chris Taylor to score the tying run.
Price used a double play to get out of the inning, then stranded Virginia runners at first and second in the ninth. He struck out pinch-hitter Reed Gragani to leave the bases loaded in the 10th, then used another double play to ease out of trouble after Virginia had loaded the bases with one out in the 12th.
“Price is an outstanding pitcher and South Carolina played great defense,’’ Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “And we squared some balls up, hit some balls right on the nose, and didn’t have enough to get that one more run.’’
Price’s greatest escape came in the 13th when the Cavaliers used a walk, Colin Harrington’s infield single and Keith Werman’s bunt single to load the bases with no outs. Price came back to strike out Taylor, then got Barr to scorch a liner that ended up in second baseman Scott Wingo’s glove.
Wingo’s flip to Moody doubled off Harrington and ended the threat.
Asked what he was thinking before facing Taylor, Price replied, “Here we go again. After I struck that guy out, the next guy hit a rope. Luckily, it was right at Wingo and he made a heck of a play.’’
South Carolina also squandered a few late-innings opportunities, leaving two runners on in the eighth, 10th and 12th innings against Kline. He also pitched a season high in lasting five innings before turning the game over to Winiarski.
The late-inning drama overshadowed the marquee starting pitching matchup of Virginia’s Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 pick in the Major League Baseball draft, and Michael Roth, one of the heroes of South Carolina’s title drive in 2010.
Hultzen left after three innings because of illness but struck out eight and allowed just a bloop single. Roth, who brought a 13-3 record and an 0.97 ERA into the game, pitched seven innings, allowing just one run on four hits.
“That game had so much involved in it that I said to Michael after the game, ‘Did you pitch tonight?’ ’’ Tanner said. “It seemed like so long ago that he was in the game.
“He had a great start for us and put us in a great position. We misplayed a couple of balls to give them a chance to tie it up and then it was off and running for free baseball.’’
The game, and the season, ended for Virginia with a flurry of mistakes and 15 runners left on base. The Cavaliers, the national No. 1 seed at the start of the tournament, finished 56-12.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to come out on the wrong end of it,’’ O’Connor said. “That being said, I’ve got a tremendous amount of pride in this team and what they accomplished this year.’’
South Carolina will take a 53-14 record into the championship series.
“These guys deserve a tremendous amount of credit,’’ Tanner said. “They’ve been able to perform in the most difficult circumstances. We’ve had some outstanding players at different times step up.
“I’m just ecstatic to be a part of this group.’’