South Carolina's celebration

Florida, South Carolina to face off in College World Series finals

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South Carolina knocked off No. 1 seed Virginia in a 13-inning game Friday to advance to the finals of the College World Series.  The Gamecocks will play Floida in a best-of-three final beginning Monday.

Virginia sent ace Danny Hultzen to the mound in an attempt to stave off elimination last night, but Hultzen, who was selected second overall by the Mariners in this month’s draft, was ill and had to come out after three scoreless innings and eight strikeouts.

With Hultzen gone, the Gamecocks took a 2-1 lead in the fourth, and starter Michael Roth was able to protect that margin until coming out after seven.  The Cavs tied it in the eighth, and at that point, the closers took over.  Brendan Kline pitched five scoreless innings for Virginia, working through the 12th.  Matt Price, a Diamondbacks’ draft pick, threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings for South Carolina, earning the win in the process.

Along the way, Price pitched out of bases-loaded jams in the ninth, 10th, 12th and 13th innings.  He pitched his 5 2/3 scoreless innings despite allowing seven hits and walking five (two intentional).  He threw more pitches (95) than Roth did in his seven innings (91).

So, now it’s the Gators and the Gamecocks for the title.  A few players to watch:

South Carolina

Jackie Bradley Jr.: The Gamecocks’ center fielder and cleanup hitter was a supplemental first-round pick of the Red Sox.  He actually had something of a disappointing season, but he came through with big hits in both of USC’s wins over Virginia.

Price: Arizona’s fifth-rounder was the Gamecocks’ second highest drafted player.  How he bounces back from throwing 95 pitches will be very interesting to see, particularly if he’s needed Monday.

Scott Wingo: The team’s second baseman got on base at a .473 clip during regular-season play.  He was a 10th-round pick of the Dodgers this month.

Florida

Karsten Whitson: Whitson was drafted ninth overall by the Padres last year, only to snub the team and go to Florida.  After having gone 8-0 with a 2.43 ERA as a freshman, he’ll start the second game against the Gamecocks.

Preston Tucker: The Rockies’ 16th-round pick.  Tucker has driven in 19 runs during the NCAA tournament, seven more than anyone else.  He had the go-ahead hit Friday as the Gators beat Vandy 6-4 to advance.

Nick Maronde: A left-handed reliever, Maronde was the Gators’ highest drafted player this year, going to the Angels in round three.  He has a 1.93 ERA and a 54/9 K/BB ratio in 42 innings out of the pen.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.