OMAHA, Neb. — Coastal Carolina, the school that is located just east of Myrtle Beach’s best outlet malls with the team that dresses in teal that received its mascot via the writings of Chaucer and steals bases like it’s 1985, is in college baseball’s final four.
Are you surprised? Of course you are.
Should you be? Not a chance.
“A lot of people thought we just wanted to come out here [to Omaha],” explained Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore. “I think they’ve shown they want to stay out here.”
On Thursday night, the Chanticleers (pronounced SHON-tuh-clears) vanquished the Red Raiders of Texas Tech, the Big 12 champions and the last remaining national seed in this year’s College World Series field, holding off a series of late-game threats to win 7-5.
An evening that started slow and weird ended slow and close. The exhaustion of a series reaching its 10th game and nearing the end of a full week was obvious on all sides. Coastal Carolina and Texas Tech, anxious to avoid elimination, ended up digging into their bullpens early, even after those bullpens had been filled with a tsunami of inflatables pouring in from the TD Ameritrade Park bleachers.
Looking up at the skies above the ballpark, fans gasped as a pair of blimps appeared to fly a little too close for comfort.
Looking down onto its field, they gasped at a dozen runners left on base by Texas Tech and eight left by Coastal Carolina — and at a box score that revealed that six of the game’s dozen runs were unearned.
Then that crowd of 25,367 traded gasps for yawns, as the contest slogged to a final running time of 3 hours, 48 minutes.
“I hope everyone is tired. I hope they are feeling a little out of sorts,” Gilmore said. “Because we’re still having fun. Maybe then we’ll be catching them at the right time to fall.”
But all of those teams came out of nowhere. They were baseball programs that had rough goes of it before their deep Omaha runs, and most haven’t returned since.
That’s not who the Chanticleers are.
To the small but proud contingent of hardcore year-round college baseball fans, Coastal Carolina’s success is nothing new. This is a program that has won 68 percent of its games since 2000, eighth best in the nation, sandwiched in between Cal State Fullerton and Texas. This is also a team that is in the midst of its 14th NCAA postseason in 16 years. Their trip to LSU marked their third super regional appearance since 2008. In 2010, they shocked their in-state powerhouses by hosting a super regional, forcing two-time CWS champ South Carolina to make the drive west up U.S. 501 with a CWS bid on the line.
“If someone is surprised that Coastal Carolina is having this much success, then they don’t pay much attention to college baseball,” said Chad Holbrook, South Carolina’s head coach, who was an assistant on the team that had to win at Myrtle Beach in 2010. “Coach Gilmore loves his school, he knows the state of South Carolina and he’s convinced his school to invest in college baseball.”
This season was the second played in CCU’s new $15.2-million ballpark, a stadium built after the school was jilted by the NCAA multiple times when it came to hosting postseason games. Gilmore, a 1980 Coastal Carolina grad, stayed patient for nearly two decades, playing in a pile of aluminum that once occupied the spot where Springs Brooks Stadium now sits.
This year, that ballpark hosted some of the nation’s best teams, including defending national champion Virginia and Ole Miss. That complemented a typically aggressive CCU calendar that included trips to South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia Tech.
And oh, by the way, six players off of this year’s team were taken in this month’s MLB first-year player draft, including Mike Morrison, Thursday night’s winning pitcher.
As long as the journey has been for Gilmore and his program, the timing might have been a blessing in disguise.
Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, it of the short fences, strong breezes and Gorilla Ball, was never a Coastal Carolina kind of place.
But TD Ameritrade, it of the low scores, few home runs and super spacious gaps, is just the right kind of fit for a team that knows how to play a 1980s Wichita State/St. Louis Cardinals kind of small ball.
On Thursday night, the Chanticleers stole four bases, the 11th time this season they’d posted four or more steals in a game.
The threat of that speed left Texas Tech rattled and looking over its shoulder, committing a trio of errors in the third that led to a three-run inning and a lead that Coastal would never surrender.
“Why not us?” said Chanticleers senior catcher David Parrett, a .130 hitter who went 2-for-4 with a trio of RBIs. “On Friday night [ versus TCU] some folks will be expecting us to lose and go home, again. And that’s cool. People not expecting us to win has worked out pretty well for us so far.”