Gamecocks Crush State 20-3 To Open Series

The SEC's top long-ball lineup met the league's bottom-ranked pitching staff Friday night at Dudy Noble Field. And sadly for Mississippi State the outcome of their SEC opener followed that statistical script as South Carolina knocked three balls out of the park, each for multiple runs, in a 20-3 victory.

The Gamecocks, ranked #3 in one national poll, improved to 20-3 and 3-1 SEC while the Bulldogs evened their league record at 2-2 and are 13-5 overall. It was Mississippi State's most lopsided SEC loss since a 22-4 defeat at home to Tennessee in 1998. And, the 17-run deficit was the worst margin of conference defeat ever for a Ron Polk Bulldog team.

Not that the coach put much stock in such trivia. "I'd rather lose a game like that than a 5-4 game when somebody walks in the winning run or makes an error," Polk said.

The Bulldogs did not keep things close enough for long enough for this to happen. After spotting the home side a pair of first-inning scores the Gamecocks battered a pair of Bulldog pitchers for 25 hits, eight of them extra-baggers. South Carolina didn't even need their three home runs to dominate State hurlers Aaron Weatherford and Greg Houston. But those longballs by James Darnell, Trent Kline, and Phil Disher emphasized the evening theme of SC prowess at the plate. They also produced eight of the 19 RBI credited the ‘Cocks.

"South Carolina is a good hitting team," acknowledged Polk. What his players thought was not recorded as two Dogs requested for post-game interviews did not come to the press box.

With support like that SC righthander Harris Honeycutt had a relatively routine stint. He put in 6.2 innings, allowing seven of State's eight base hits and all three runs. But after giving up a pair in his first turn Honeycutt (6-0) was able to take care of himself, striking out eight Dogs and walking only one. Alex Farotto took care of the remaining seven outs and fanned seven himself.

Weatherford (3-1) had less luck, tagged for eight of the runs on 10 hits in his 5.1 innings of labor. He walked five more Gamecocks and struck out four. Freshman reliever Greg Houston took the hill in mid-sixth and was left there for the balance of the game even as South Carolina kept pouring it on. He ended up adding 15 hits and a dozen runs to his personal stat-line, though striking out six with no walks.

"We hated to leave Greg out there all that time but we've got to save our bullpen for the next couple of days," Polk said.

In the aftermath it was hard to recall that the home team actually drew first blood and held a 2-0 lead through one inning. In fact State hung a couple of runs on Honeycutt before he got an out. 2B Jeffrey Rea walked in leadoff and SS Brandon Turner lined a drive into a right-centerfield gap made much wider by the USC centerfielder cheating the other direction. Rea scored easily and Turner made third without a throw. He scored on C Edward Easley's grounder.

The lead didn't last out the top of the next inning. A walk, one-out single and fielder's choice grounder had ‘Cocks on corners with two down, and Weatherford went ahead 0-2 on Reese Havens. But the nine-hitter fouled off a couple of strikes before lining a single into centerfield. "He made one bad pitch," Polk said. "We tried to bounce a breaking ball and he got it up." It also should have been for one run, except CF Mark Goforth let the ball get through and Travis Jones scored from first to tie it up.

"That changed the complexion of the game," Polk said. Because South Carolina took a 3-2 lead in their third as Weatherford issued a pair of one-out walks. A strikeout later, Disher took his first pitch through shortstop for the go-ahead RBI.

Gamecock gaffes gave State chances to get it back even. In the bottom of the third Turner's high fly went off the leftfielder's glove (a hit was ruled) for two bases. Easley flew out behind second base to strand him. Next inning up 1B Mitch Moreland opened with a single and with two down 3B Conner Powers reached on a great grab and high throw from the USC third baseman. Two Dogs were in scoring position and got no farther as Honeycutt fanned Rice.

And USC made the lost chances hurt worse in their fifth. James Darnell singled and took second on a sacrifice bunt, though he would have scored from first anyway on Justin Smoak's double to left-centerfield. And his extra base hit meant a 5-2 lead when Robbie Grinestaff delivered the RBI-single. Turner saved another run with a diving stop of Andrew Crisp's bouncer and Weatherford stranded a pair by fielding Jones' bunt and, seated on the grass, throwing him out at first.

Weatherford came back for the sixth and was hit all the harder. Havens singled off the centerfield wall and bunted over to third, again a needless sacrifice because Darnell crushed the first pitch over everything in left-center for the two-run homer. Kline followed with a gapper the other way good for three bases and the pitching change.

"Aaron's pitch counts got up and and he walked four guys, which is uncharacteristic," Polk said. "From that point it became contagious hitting." Houston allowed a bloop single that scored Kline, then with two down Disher lifted a fly that slid just outside the tall wall and over the fence for a 10-2 margin.

Havens reached again in the SC seventh as his one-out liner caromed off LF Joseph McCaskill's, ruled a two-base hit anyway. Houston got a second out but Kline turned one a fat one and lined it over rightfield for the third shot of the affair, this one a three-RBI number that had the Gamecocks in front 13-2 at the stretch.

And they didn't slow the sticks then. After State got a third run in their seventh South Carolina saw them one and raised another in the eighth. Substitute Cheyne Hurst beat out an infield hit, Disher singled cleanly, and a Crisp grounder was booted at third base for one run. Havens lofted a fly behind second base for his fifth hit of the night that fell between a trio of gloves, scoring Disher. Houston did well to leave two more ‘Cocks in scoring positions.

But in the ninth USC loaded the sacks on a couple of singles and errored grounder to shortstop that should have ended the inning. Instead the Gamecocks rattled off four consecutive singles, completing the rout.

Meanwhile Honeycutt left two Dogs on bases in his fifth, covering first himself on Moreland's hot grounder to the bagman. The Bulldogs got a couple of cheap singles to open the sixth; that threat ended on a double-play and strikeout of RF Andy Rice, his third fanning of the evening. As he had a double-digit lead to work with Honeycutt was allowed to resume the mound in State's seventh, only to allow a one-out double by Rea and RBI-hit from Turner. An out later he was excused for Farotto.

The lefty reliever was met by Moreland's drive that one-hopped the right-centerfield wall, but on ground-rule Rea had to return to third. He stayed there as pinch-batter Ryan Duffy fanned. Farotto also whiffed three pinch-batters in the MSU eighth, and retired the ninth-inning side to bring a merciful end to the evening.

Eight Gamecocks had two or more hits and a dozen SC batters in all hit safely. Turner and Moreland accounted for half of State's eight base hits.

Game-two is at 3:00 Saturday with regional telecast on SportSouth.

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