HOOVER, Ala. -- Bases loaded. Nobody out. Top of the ninth. Down by one.
For all its struggles Saturday, LSU appeared set to overcome its biggest obstacle of the SEC Tournament when Sean Barker, the team's top run producer, came to bat as midnight neared at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Tigers were rallying, their fans rocking. Two runs had already crossed in the ninth. More were certain to follow.
Even the glass-half-empty LSU fan would concede that, if nothing else, the fourth-seeded Tigers would enter the bottom of the ninth in a tie game with top-seeded South Carolina.
But on this night, with a full moon hanging ominously above the Alabama sky, disaster struck swiftly, sending LSU to a 5-4 defeat -- its second loss to the Gamecocks in the semifinal round of the tournament.
Barker rolled a first-pitch grounder to USC shortstop Drew Meyer, who stepped on second base to force out Wally Pontiff as he tried advancing from first. Meyer's relay to double-up Barker was late, but Pontiff was ruled to have interfered with Meyer on his way in to second.
Worse yet, J.C. Holt, who crossed home from third, and Aaron Hill, who had moved from second to third, were sent back to their respective bases. First base was empty and the Tigers still trailed by a run before USC closer Blake Taylor issued an intentional walk to Matt Heath, bringing up Blake Gill with the bases full and two away.
As boos echoed through the stadium, Gill fell behind in the count 0-2 and then grounded sharply to USC first baseman Yaron Peters, who tossed to Taylor for the put out at first base. Game over.
"They said that I interfered with the throw," Pontiff said later, still a look of disbelief in his eyes, "and I was 3 feet from the bag. I just tucked my head and that's it."
LSU coach Smoke Laval, who charged from the dugout to argue with second-base umpire Ken Couch when the call was made, didn't speak with reporters after the game. It was the end of a frustrating day for the Tigers, who, sporting gold jerseys for the first time this season, absorbed their first back-to-back losses since late April.
While USC (48-13) advanced to play second-seeded Alabama in the championship game at 3 p.m. Sunday, LSU (40-19) must now await Monday morning's announcement of NCAA Tournament pairings. Though it is likely the Tigers will host a sub-regional next weekend, their chances of garnering a top-8 national seed -- and, with it, the opportunity to host a Super Regional -- are likely out the window.
SOUTH CAROLINA 10, LSU 8
USC set the tone for its run to the tournament title game with an explosion of offense against the Tigers, whose recipe for success in Thursday's 8-3 victory -- the big inning -- worked in the Gamecocks' favor this time around.
Taking advantage of four-run outbursts in the third and eighth innings, USC snapped LSU's five-game winning streak with a 10-8 triumph to set up the wild nightcap.
"It would be an understatement to say I'm extremely pleased right now," said USC coach Ray Tanner, who, after Thursday's loss, compared the Gamecocks' road through the losers' bracket to a hike up Mount Everest. "It's a tough task taking on the hottest team in the nation. I'm just happy to survive and be able to play another game."
Bo Pettit, the Sunday starter in LSU's SEC weekend rotation, was a candidate to pitch in Saturday's first game. But LSU coach Smoke Laval chose to go with lefty Brad David against the Gamecocks, fearful of USC's offensive pop from the left side of the plate.
"Brad David did what he was supposed to do," Laval said.
David surrendered five earned runs, including four in the third, before giving way to Clay Harris in the fifth. Harris, who didn't allow a hit despite surrendering two runs (one earned), did what Laval hoped he would: perform steady enough to get Jake Tompkins a save opportunity.
Tompkins (5-1), however, didn't answer the call. Tompkins entered with one out in the top of the eighth, giving way to three runs that gave USC a 10-7 lead. Though the Tigers answered with a run in the bottom of the inning, John Wesley set them down in order in the ninth to nail down the save for Matt Campbell (3-2).
Matt Heath went 3-for-4, with the highlight an RBI triple to ignite LSU‘s three-run second. But Meyer, USC's leadoff hitter, stole the show with a 4-for-5 performance, including a triple of his own.
"I guess maybe we should just throw him a fastball over the middle on the first pitch, let him have his double or triple," Laval said jokingly. "That way we wouldn't waste our time with the pitch count."
SOUTH CAROLINA 5, LSU 4
Even as Pontiff lamented the controversial call in the ninth, he expressed his disappointment in the Tigers' lack of offensive punch through the game's first eight innings. Had the LSU bats awoken earlier, he said, such a dramatic ending would not have been necessary.
USC starter Aaron Rawl (5-1), relying heavily on a nose-diving split-finger fastball, scattered eight hits and struck out eight before giving way to Taylor with two on in the ninth. Taylor, who leads the nation with 19 saves, gave up an infield single to J.C. Holt and then issued two walks to score two runs.
That brought up Barker, setting the stage for the shocking conclusion of LSU's stay at the SEC Tournament.
"A lot of umpires might not make that call," Tanner said. "All I could do was ask Drew if they made the right call, and he said, 'Absolutely.'"
With LSU's defeat, a gutsy, complete-game performance by Pettit was for naught. Pettit (8-7) took the hill with the Tigers' pitching staff worn thin and, minus the three-run, fifth-inning homer he surrendered to Steve Thomas, controlled the Gamecocks' potent offense. He ended the game with eight strikeouts and, most impressively, wiggled out of a bases-loaded eighth-inning jam as his pitch count soared to 137.
"This is a game where you've got to make competitive pitches, especially at this time of the season," Pettit said. "You can't take any pitches off. It could come down to one mistake."
LSU learned that lesson the hard way.