The Gamecocks (38-15, 16-11) are still in fourth place and holding on to a first-day bye at next week's SEC Tournament. But South Carolina could have locked that berth and bye up Thursday and midway of the eighth were in fine position to do so. They had survived being out-hit by stranding all but one Bulldog, and led thanks to the sort of timely contact State couldn't make.
But was the home side calling it an evening early? "Nobody is panicking in the dugout, nobody is going crazy," said Henderson. "We know what we're capable of and keep fighting."
The real fight began with 1B Wes Rea's no-doubt solo shot to lead off that bottom-of-eight, his sixth home run of the year. Even then a comeback seemed unlikely as South Carolina replaced reliever Adam Westmoreland with Tyler Webb, only the SEC leader in saves. An odd thing happened with the change, though. Almost everybody was hitting, or walking.
CF C.T. Bradford reached on an infield single, then with one out Henderson came up. He'd hit a chink double in the first inning and clean single in the fifth off Gamecock starter Nolan Belcher already, but big Webb was harder-throwing lefthander. So South Carolina's infield played for a double-up.
Henderson noticed and wasn't insulted. He was pleased and made a quick call on his own accord. "I'd been swinging it good and they kind of forgot about the bunt. I saw them easing back more and more so I was like why not?" His push up the first base line was perfect, sucking-in the first baseman who couldn't get the ball before Henderson had flown by.
Calling Webb rattled might be extreme. But neither was he the same slammer who'd closed 15 wins already with just one blown save. C Nick Ammirati fouled-away two strikes on 0-2 and deposited a single in centerfield scoring Bradford. SS Adam Frazier also got behind in the count before crunching a one-hopper off the glove of shortstop Joey Pankake. Henderson raced around for the tying run.
Webb got a second out before wild-pitching both runners along. With first base open RF Hunter Renfroe, who'd struggled in three previous RBI opportunities, was intentionally walked in a show of sheer respect for his fly-ball potential. It didn't work out because 2B Brett Pirtle watched the 3-1 pitch go high for a run-forcing walk.
State did leave the sacks stuffed but with a 5-4 lead now. LHP Chad Girodo, who'd sat the Gamebocks in the top of the eighth, came back for a left-on-left matchup and barely lost it with a full-count walk. No problem; not with Jonathan Holder warmed and ready. He took care of the obligatory sacrifice bunt that put Max Schrock in scoring position, and left him unscored with strikeouts of lefthanded pinch hitter Kyle Martin and righty Sean Sullivan.
It was Holder's 15th save, tying him for the league lead and extending his school season record. It also made a winner of Girodo (5-1) on just 1.0 official inning relief with no hits, two strikeouts, and the close walk. Webb (2-2) took the loss on 1.0 innings with three runs on four hits, two walks and no strikeouts.
"Our offense came up big for us tonight," Girodo said. "And Holder came in and shut it down."
For too much of the contest State's offense was coming up short. Not in total hitting of course as at least one and more often two, even three Dogs reached base every single inning. They finished with 14 safeties in eight turns compared to seven South Carolina hits in nine. But as they say, timing is everything. And up to the eighth the Gamecocks had the right timing.
They also had the right starter despite the statistics. Belcher survived almost all the nine hits he surrendered, stranding seven himself with a lone run allowed in the third. However the lefthander did walk three Bulldogs, most unusual given he'd passed only ten batters in the previous 93.0 innings.
"He was changing up speeds a lot, mixing and matching breaking balls with changeups and fastball and keeping us off-balance," said Henderson. Though, State ought to have gotten more done earlier. In the second Bradford was on first base when Henderson chinked a little looper maybe four steps behind the first baseman that kept rolling. Bradford was sent for home and to all eyes save umpire Scott Kennedy made it. And his opinion counted.
The Bulldog third went somewhat better as Ammirati opened with a single. A one-out walk of 3B Alex Detz had him in position to score. It looked as if he'd be left there as Renfroe was fooled on a 1-2 changeup. But Pirtle kept the inning going, and provided the first run as well, with a single to rightfield that scored Ammirati.
Still State was playing from behind all night as LHP Luis Pollorena's evening began badly. A four-pitch walk and single past third base had a pair on for Pankake, who drove the first offering to the left-centerfield gap. He tried stretching for a triple and was out but the two RBI scored in front of him.
The free out might have helped settle the pitcher down. Because Pollorena ended the first on two pop-ups, then rolled through the next three turns with nobody reaching. The Gamecocks did help him out with a lot of early swings and long if routine fly balls or pop-outs.
"He makes two great pitches and elevates a pitch that allows a guy to get barrel to it," Coach John Cohen said. "I made the decision to keep him in right there." It worked fine until the fifth as all those fly balls began falling between fielders. Brison Celek doubled to right-centerfield with one out, and after two were down number-nine batter Tanner English fouled off two strikes on 2-2 count before bouncing a two-bagger over left-centerfield. Order-topper Graham Saiko got around on a 3-1 fastball and lined it to leftfield for a 4-1 score and pitching change.
"I just thought that was tough pill to swallow because we made the pitches to get the out there," Cohen said. "But we still found a way to put up some zeroes and win the ball game."
First, because LHP Ross Mitchell once again stabilized a situation. It was close though, as in the seventh a leadoff single had the Bulldogs looking bunt. Instead Connor Bright lined a shot over where the drawn-in Detz would have been. Henderson got to the ball, fired, and Frazier got the relay home ahead of pinch-runner Shon Costen for the out. With a 1-2 count Mitchell was replaced by RHP Will Cox to finish striking out English, and fan Saiko at the top of the order.
"They all had big swings so the main thing was to keep it down," said Girodo.
Belcher reached 100 pitches just before walking Frazier in the MSU seventh, with Henderson already on base on a scratch single off the second baseman's glove. Westmoreland escaped a bases-loaded jam by nicking the inside corner on Renfroe for a strikeout; then getting a huge defensive feat from third baseman Chase Vergason. Pirtle's hot hopper went off his glove, but only a couple of steps foul.
"It was an unbelievable play," Cohen said. "He turns his shoulder on it, keeps it in front and steps on the bag. If that gets over or goes another direction it changes the whole complexion." Fortunately the Dogs weren't deflated, and Rea's rip over left-centerfield did inspire further hope.
"Sometimes that's what an offense needs, to get a little spark like that," said Rea. Or a big spark.
Bradford, Ammirati, and Henderson each had three base hits and the catcher scored twice. "We got 14 hits and it finally came together," said Bradford. "We got some big hits in some big situations, so everyone kind of came through offensively and defensively."
As Cohen said, the competitors were as well-matched as the final score. "We're throwing our little guy early, they've got their little lefthander early; they've got one of the premier closers in the country and we feel we have one of the premier closers in the country. It came down to that at the end."
"It was a great ball game. Our kids show again they're not out of ball games. This is not a group you want to take off on early."
Game-two is 6:30 Friday with RHP Kendall Graveman (5-5, 3.00) matching up with Gamecock lefthander Jordan Montgomery (4-1, 1.86). The rain threat has increased per forecasts.