Photo finish

Tigers, Gamecocks split a pair Friday, will settle series and the SEC race on Saturday.

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Well, it’s down to one day, three games and what figures to be plenty of drama.


And somehow or another, a couple or three national seeds for theNCA Tournament could shake out as well.


For four SEC teams, that’s what things have come down to as the 2012 regular season winds to a close.


LSU is in that elite quartet, with a chance to win the regular-season crown outright, share it or have to settle for the West Division championship the Tigers sewed up Thursday night.


All that came became clear – as mud? – on Friday when 4th-ranked LSU and No. 1 South Carolina split a doubleheader at Carolina Stadium.


The Gamecocks surged back from three runs down with one mighty blow and then rallied past the Tigers for a 5-4 triumph at Carolina Stadium. LSU won the first game Friday, 5-2.


That gives USC (39-14, 18-10 SEC) a half-game lead over the Tigers (41-14, 18-11), Kentucky and Florida.


“It makes for an exciting day,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We had a great win earlier (Friday) and unfortunately, we don’t get a chance to enjoy it. We just couldn’t put the finishing touch on it.”


For five innings, the Tigers seemed poised for a doubleheader sweep.


Three manufactured runs had LSU in front 3-0.


Freshman pitcher Aaron Nola had five pretty good innings and one bad one, though, and that one bad frame was costly.


The Gamecocks touched up Nola for four runs in the sixth inning – three on Christian Walker’s prodigous home run – and tacked on the go-ahead run on Joey Pankake’s two-out triple.


For five innings Nola was cruising without a run allowed and only two hits permitted. But USC left fielder Tanner English chopped a leadoff single in the sixth inning and Evan Marzilli blooped another hit over third base to kickstart a rally.


After Adam Matthews struck out, Nola grooved a fastball down the heart of the plate and Walker hammered it of the ballpark to knot the score, 3-3.


Nola got the second out, but Grayson Greiner singled and Joey Pankake put the Gamecocks in front when he split the gap in right-center field for an RBI triple.


“We faced a kid that unfortunately you don’t want to let beat you and we let him beat us,” Mainieri said. “He tied up the game with one swing. They were able to tack and we just weren’t able to come back enough.”


Each team tacked on a run later, but Carolina’s sixth-inning uprising – after 14 innings of frustration – was the turning point.


LSU could never muster a similar eruption, instead scratching out single runs in the first, third, fifth and eighth innings. Freshman catcher Tyler Moore produced two of the runs with singles, Alex Edward got another home on a suicide squeeze bunt and Raph Rhymes chased home the last one.


Moore got an unexpected start behind the plate after Jordy Snikeris took a foul ball off a fingerin Friday’s first game. The finger swelled up between games of the doubleader.

Tyler Moore: Surprise start behind the plate, responds with a pair of RBI singles.


Sparked by Moore, the Tigers came out swinging against South Carolina starter Forrest Koumas, but didn’t have a bunch to show for it – in part because of a wind that knocked down several promising fly balls for both teams all night.


Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes drew back-to-back walks with two outs in the first inning and that pestered Koumas when Moore chopped a single through the middle for an RBI hit.


Edward poked a ball to the left side that smothered at shortstop, but the infield single loaded the bases. Grant Dozar nearly punched a major hole in the game when he hammered a 2-and-0 pitch to right center field, but the wind held it up and right fielder Adam Matthews hauled it in at the fence.


In the LSU third inning, Rhymes drilled a one-out single into center field and Moore reached on an error that sent Rhymes scampering to third base. On Koumas’ first pitch, Rhymes broke for the plate and Edward pushed a bunt to the right of the mound that the Gamecocks’ pitched scooped up but dropped, allowing Rhymes to slide home with the second run.


LSU nudged the lead to 3-0 in the fifth inning when Katz punched a leadoff single, got to second on a passed ball, hustled to third on Rhymes’ fly ball to right field and scored when Moore shanked a veering fly ball against reliever Tyler Webb that landed in front of the left fielder for an RBI hit.


That was the last run the Tigers pushed across with a lead, though, and the frustration began soon after.


The left-handed Webb gave up a single to Edward to put runners on the corners with one out. Mainieri sent Casey Yocom to hit for Dozar and the mission was simple.


“We had a first-and-third (with) one out with Yocom up and all we needed to do was hit a little weak ground ball to the right side and we get another run,” Mainieri said.


Instead, Yocom popped the first pitch up on the infield for the second out and JaCoby Jones’ wicked liner to left died in the wind to end the threat.


“That first-and-third one out situation is going to live in my mind,” Mainieri said. “All we’ve got to do is hit a weak ground ball to the right side, but we pop it up and that seemed like it changed the complexion of the game and kept them in striking distance.”


LSU squandered another chance in the sixth when Tyler Hanover led off with a single and Arby Fields walked one out to bring up Katz.


The Tigers’ three-hole hitter timed Webb and pumped a fly ball that seemed headed for a hit in left field, but English lunged and came up with the ball. A slow signal from the third-base umpire left Hanover hung up and he was gunned down at second to end the inning.


Carolina grabbed the lead in the bottom of the inning and Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner lifted Webb for Eric Beal to begin the seventh. That backfired when Beal walked Rhymes and Moore, which prompted Tanner to call on closer Matt Price.


Mainieri had Edward bunt again, but he popped out to the catcher and Price fanned the next two hitters.


The Tigers got to Price in the eighth for run with Hanover’s leadoff double, Austin Nola’s single and Rhymes’ two-out hit through the middle. But Price struck out the side between those hits and logged two more Ks in a perfect ninth.


“He’s a veteran,” Mainieri said of Price, who saved his ninth game. “He’s been in a lot of big games. He threw a lot of breaking balls and we struggled with him.”


And that leaves the Tigers in a last-day battle for the SEC crown and quite possibly and top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.


That’s all that’s at stake as the SEC season roars to the finish line.


SEC scenarios 

LSU is assured of no worse than the No. 2 seed at the SEC Tournament next week by being the West Division champ.

A South Carolina win Saturday gives the Gamecocks the regular-season championship outright because they will have played one fewer game than the other contenders, so nobody else can tie USC.

The Tigers’ split, Kentucky's 4-3 loss at Mississippi State and Florida’s 10-1 victory against Auburn on Friday created the following situations:

  • LSU, Kentucky and Florida all go into Saturday tied for second place in the SEC with 18-11 records, half a game behind South Carolina (18-10).
  • To win the SEC regular-season championship outright, the Tigers need a win Saturday and losses by Kentucky and Florida.
  • LSU would tie for the league crown with a win and wins by either the Wildcats or Gators.
  • If the standings end in a two-way tie between the Tigers and Kentucky, the Wildcats would be the No. 1 seed at next week's SEC Tournament and LSU No. 2.
  • If the standings end in a two-way tie between the Tigers and Florida, LSU would be the No. 1 seed at next week's SEC Tournament and Florida No. 2.
  • If there is a three-way tie among LSU, Kentucky and Florida (all three win on Saturday), UK would get the No. 1 seed.

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