By avoiding sweeping the Gamecocks got away 21-11, 6-6 SEC. The Diamond Dogs are 21-13 and 5-7, with a first conference series success of the season after taking Thursday and Friday wins.
“Taking two out of three is a big deal, especially from them,” RHP Levi Mintz said. “We’re not going to let one loss define an entire series for us.”
Not in the larger picture. In the emotions of the moment though Bulldogs couldn’t escape what-iffing. Even after a ten-hit, seven-run output SS Seth Heck wondered if more could have been done. “Today we hit some balls hard and they made plays.”
For his part Coach John Cohen looked at plays not-made, or miss-played. He particularly focused on a pair of second-inning situations that helped the Gamecocks turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead they never lost. “I thought there were some really key decisions made in this game on the field that we really struggled with,” Cohen said.
Yet it may well have been an off-field decision which made the largest difference. Not that moving LHP Vance Tatum up a day for the start was ‘wrong’ based on what State had already seen. In game-one Thursday, lefty Lucas Laster dominated Gamecock batters for a full-route victory. So not coming back with a ready southpaw would have been viciously second-guessed.
It still will. After winning last Sunday against Auburn, Tatum struggled this time. “This was not one of Vance’s better days,” Cohen said. Tatum (3-1) took his first loss with just 1.1 innings of work, charged with four runs on five hits, a walk and a strikeout.
Even then as the game ground on the Bulldogs had chances to stay close and strike late. The latter happened; the former? Not with the bullpen failing to keep South Carolina anything like close. LHP Ross Mitchell allowed the next four runs on four hits and a walk in 2.1 innings. Mintz went the longest stint, 3.2 innings with three runs on three hits, a walk and three strikeouts.
South Carolina didn’t get anything like a strong start either. In fact righthander Clarke Schmidt only lasted six batters and had allowed two runs on two hits with a couple of walks before he could be yanked. Fortunately for the Gamecocks righty Brandon Murray was able to stop the first-frame assault and take control.
Murray (4-0) gave 5.2 official innings with two runs scored on four hits, a walk and strikeout. Neither of the runs came until well-after South Carolina had built a lead too big to fail. It certainly survived the remaining MSU runs, coming off reliever Cody Mincey and Taylor Widener in their 3.0 combined turns.
Tatum was attacked immediately with consecutive singles in the first inning and a bases-loaded walk. As there were no outs he was extremely lucky to allow just one run, as LF Cody Brown robbed a drive to the left-center gap for a sacrifice-fly RBI by Elliott Caldwell. South Carolina ran themselves out of more by trying to advance both runners on a fly ball to rightfield.
Instead RF Jake Vickerson’s throw towards third base was cut off by SS Ryan Gridley and Kyle Martin tagged out at second for the double-play. Tatum even returned for the top of the second with a 2-1 lead. Brown singled in leadoff and a Vickerson drive got past a glove for a double. C Gavin Collins bounced one slowly to shortstop so Brown could come home and Vickerson advance.
The other bases were quickly filled by consecutive walks of DH Reid Humphreys and CF Jacob Robson. 1B Wes Rea just missed a double, his drive falling a yard outside the left line. But the next pitch drilled him in the shoulder for a free base, RBI, and 2-1 lead. What this really achieved was bringing in Murray to roll a double-play.
And then go on a tear with ten more consecutive outs, until Heck’s one-out single in the fifth. By then the Gamecocks were up 8-2. Tatum was hit for a leadoff single, before the first of those decisions Cohen called crucial. Madison Stokes sent a drive to short centerfield that CF Jacob Robson chose to dive at, and missed.
Vickerson got to the ball to prevent anyone from scoring. Rather, to delay it. #9 batter Marcus Mooney lashed his first pitch past third base for two runs. Mitchell inherited Mooney on second base with the top of the USC order up, and bunting. Not for a sacrifice specifically but to reach if possible. Here came the second decision.
Because Mitchell fielded and chose to go for the lead runner. It might have worked with a faster and lower throw; instead Mooney slid in safely while Gene Cone reached first. He ought have been a second out and a fly ball from Max Schrock have ended the inning. But Martin was able to swing and drive in two for the 5-2 lead.
“That changes the whole nature of the ball game, just those two decisions,” Cohen said.
South Carolina built up the lead with one run in the third; then a crush by Schrock that stayed inside the right pole for a two-run homer in the fourth. Martin made it 9-2 with a ground-ball RBI in the sixth, off Mintz.
The Bulldogs finally got to Murray after the stretch. SS Ryan Gridley singled his way on, then consecutive doubles by Holland and Heck cut the deficit to 9-4. Mincey kept it there, or rather first baseman Martin did by snagging a Vickerson bullet and stepping on the sack for a double-play. Then the Gamecocks trumped it with four eighth-inning runs.
An errored grounder and one-out single brought in LHP Daniel Brown. He proceeded to walk the bases full, give up a RBI-single to Caldwell, and plunk Bright for another run. With two outs Arendas looped a little single over first base for the 13-4 margin.
State got some pride points in the ninth with Vickerson driving in Heck and Collins grounding-in Brown. A wild pitch kept the inning going and scored Vickerson as well, before Widener mercifully ended the long afternoon.
South Carolina matched its season-highs for both runs and hits, 15 of them, as Schrock went 5-of-6 with two RBI and two runs. Martin and Arendas each drove in three. State got a 3-of-4 day from Heck with a run and RBI, and Vickerson ended a hot weekend going 2-of-5 for two runs and a RBI.
”Everybody got to first base except Gavin Collins and he had two RBI,” Cohen said of a 10-hit team day. The issue clearly wasn’t swinging bats. Missing them, and making correct decisions, was.
Now the next decision to make is how to pitch the new week. The Bulldogs travel to Texas A&M for the next series, but first have to visit Memphis for Tuesday’s contest in AutoZone Park. Sexton did throw in the bullpen today but that was just to get work in, not to relieve at any point. Cohen agreed the soph righty could be a midweek option, but the tone of voice seemed to indicate otherwise.
“We’ll make that decision because it’s going to affect our weekend also,” he said.