(Christian Peterson/Getty Images Sports)
As UCLA's catcher began to crouch down, I began to feel a rush of nerves course through my veins.
Our team was on the verge of winning a national championship, and the bat was in my hands. It was the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 2 of the College Series, and the winning run was 90 feet away from me.
We were facing UCLA in a best-of-three series to win the National Championship, and after having already won the first game 7-1, we had a chance to end things right there and then. With the score tied at 1-1, all I needed was a sac fly to give South Carolina its first NCAA Championship in baseball.
As I made my way from the on-deck circle to the batter's box, I was certain that I wouldn't get a pitch to hit. Back then you couldn't point to first base to ask for the intentional walk, you had to actually face four pitches, but I knew that my plate appearance was just a formality. We had a runner on third base with one out, and nothing about the situation called for me to get a pitch to hit.
Baseball 101 says that you intentionally load the bases. The potential run at third would end the game, so the runners at first and second would serve no purpose other than to create a force out at every plate and set up a potential double play. Plus, the batter behind me was future World Series winner Jackie Bradley Jr., so I was almost certain they were walking both of us.
To top it off, future All-Star Trevor Bauer was waiting in the bullpen, so it made sense for him to come in and throw eight balls to me and JBJ to loosen up. Instead, as I gripped my bat and looked toward the mound, I noticed Trevor wasn't coming in the game. And when the catcher crouched down, I noticed they weren't walking me either.
This was it. This was actually happening.
The first pitch was low and away, and so was the second. Now with a 2-0 count in my favor, I began to think again that I was being walked. This time it was going to be an "unintentional-intentional walk", where I would get four pitches out of the zone, just to see if I would swing away.
The thing was, I had been in this position before, and the previous time I had let my team down. I was determined to not let it happen a second time.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics)
Most Gamecock fans remember that at-bat against UCLA, but what they might not remember was our game a few days before, when we were facing elimination against Oklahoma. We were down 2-1 in the bottom of the 12th inning, with one out, when I stepped to the plate. And sitting on a 3-1 count, I got under the ball and popped it up to third. It was only because JBJ tied the game with two outs and two strikes that I was even in this position against UCLA.
Considering I had messed up the last time I was in this spot, coach Tanner had every reason in the world to micro-manage the situation. He could have given me instructions after every pitch and told me exactly what to do. But he trusted me, and believed in me, even more than maybe I believed in myself.
So with the 2-0 count and my teammate Scott Wingo inching his way off third base, I made up my mind to swing. Anything even close to the plate and I was going to hack away. Sure enough, even though the ball was low again, it caught enough of the plate for me to swing. And when I did, I could tell I had made good contact.
The ball began to sail, and sail, and when it hit the grass over their right fielder's head, that was it. South Carolina had just won the National Championship!
Everybody mobbed Scott at home, but I had to touch first to make the run count. As soon as I rounded the bag, my teammates made their way toward me. They formed a huge dog pile, and even though I was at the bottom of the heap, it felt like I was on top of the world.
(Dave Weaver/Associated Press 2010)
We celebrated as a team, and then I celebrated with everyone who had come to watch me - my mom, my dad, my brothers and sisters, and my girlfriend. Then the next day when we got back to Columbia, I began to realize just how big of a deal this was to the people there. We had a parade and celebration in front of the state Capital, and everywhere I looked I saw Garnet and Black. And they had all come there to congratulate us.
But God's plan didn't call for me to stay in that moment forever. If I was going to get to the big leagues, I needed to be humbled first.