Gamecock Bullpen Beats Bulldogs 8-3

By the line score it looked like another impressive outing for South Carolina batters. But those watching the action, either at Dudy Noble Field or on regional television, knew better. This was a day for the Gamecock bullpen to show its stuff in sealing Sunday rubber game with Mississippi State.

#2-ranked South Carolina got superior relief work from Jeff Jeffords and Wynn Pelzer to secure a 8-3 victory. Their strong right arms made sure the Gamecocks left Starkville 21-4 overall and tied for first in the SEC's Eastern Division at 4-2. "This is a great ball club because they have a great bullpen," said Mississippi State Coach Ron Polk, whose Bulldogs are now 14-6 and 3-3 SEC.

The Gamecocks did rattle off a dozen base hits, including a pair of fourth-inning home runs that turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead never lost. Cleanup-batter Justin Smoak had the biggest stick with four hits, one of them the key two-run shot, a total four RBI and two scores himself. But State swingers still knew who made the most difference.

"Their bullpen showed up today," said 2B Jeffrey Rea, one of the few Dogs to have any success against SC pitching with a pair of singles and run scored.

And at the right time, after rookie Blake Cooper battled through three frames allowing half of State's eight hits and the pair of runs. They were the first earned scores charged to the rookie's account in seven 2007 appearances. But SC didn't see any need to gamble on the kid hanging in there any longer, not with other arms ready and able.

Career reliever Jeffords (2-1) made the most of his opportunity, taking over in the bottom of the fourth after his offense had slugged out the one-run lead. The senior threw 3.2 excellent innings with only one run—that off an Edward Easley homer—allowed on two hits. "He's just got a great arm, a good breaking ball," said Polk. "He could probably be a closer for anybody else in the SEC. But Pelzer is going to be a potential first-round pick."

Junior Pelzer did complete the day's duty with 2.1 scoreless innings, striking out four against a pair of State safeties. He did not earn a save.

For his part State starter Josh Johnson got through three scoreless innings, but staked to a two-run lead could not maintain the advantage. "I made good pitches the first three innings and didn't make many mistakes," Johnson said. That changed when a pair of longballs for three runs in the fourth frame put South Carolina in front to stay. "I made a couple of mistakes, the two balls they hit out where changeups and that's the ball game right there," Johnson said. He surrendered two more scores in the sixth. Johnson (2-1) was charged with seven SC hits, five of the runs (all earned), while striking out five with a walk.

John Lalor went three innings, with two runs off three hits, and Chad Crosswhite worked the ninth with a final Gamecock score off two hits.

Freshman Cooper didn't have the best of starts, as the first two Dogs up made base on errored grounders around first base. "This was his first road appearance and we wanted to get to him," said Rea, one of those reaching. But Cooper got Easley to line out to left, rolled a force of SS Brandon Turner at second, and after DH Brian LaNinfa walked to load all bases a sinking liner from Powers was snared by the second-sacker to strand the trio.

"We hit three ‘seeds' that didn't fall in," Polk said. "If those balls fall in we probably have a three- or four-spot."

It took two more innings for the Bulldogs to break the scoring ice. With Rea on first after a leadoff single and one down Easley swung on a dirtball. He missed but so did the backstop, putting Dogs on corners. A strikeout of 1B Mitch Moreland left it up to LaNinfa to produce. He did, blooping the 1-1 offering behind shortstop for one RBI. 3B Conner Powers got a second with a sharper single through the left side.

LF Joseph McCaskill lashed his first pitch up the middle and right into infield ump Jay Ashrods's foot. His partners instantly called time, meaning McCaskill reached even though the SC shortstop had grabbed the ricochet and thrown to first base. Polk was sorry to see the ump leave for the hospital but regretted more losing a sure RBI-single.

So the umpiring crew was short while the bags were full for RF Andy Rice. Cooper got a ground-out to second to keep it 2-0.

But, "We knew a couple of runs wasn't going to do it," Rea said later. It didn't, as the Gamecocks hit Johnson harder in their fourth. Trent Kline singled into center and on 1-0 cleanup batter Justin Smoak homered over rightfield. "He just went down and got it," Johnson said of the changeup. An out later DH Phil Disher came after Johnson's first pitch and no-doubted it over left-centerfield for a 3-2 South Carolina lead.

Johnson kept it there on three fly-balls in the fifth, but Kline was back up to open the sixth and singled. "As the game went on I got a little tired and was missing spots," Johnson said. With the infield thinking bunt Smoak swung away and chipped a hit into short center for runners on first and third. Robbie Grinestaff singled up the middle for a 4-2 lead and kept ‘Cocks on corners with still no outs. It also finished Johnson, who was charged with a fifth run even as reliever Lalor was able to roll a double-play off Disher.

The Gamecocks did keep expanding at Lalor's expense, with James Darnell and Smoak driving in runs in their seventh for a 7-2 advantage. All the while Jeffords was controlling State sticks, striking out six of a dozen Dogs faced until with two down in the seventh Easley lifted a high-fly that cleared centerfield for the solo homer. It was his seventh shot of the season.

And, a good reason to let Jeffords take his bow and let righthander Pelzer complete the afternoon. He kept State from getting any closer, sitting seven of nine with only singles by LaNinfa and Turner against him. South Carolina padded the margin of victory with a run-scoring single by Smoak in the ninth.

Six Gamecocks combined for the 12 hits but everybody made consistent contact. "They don't have a weak spot in the lineup," said Johnson. Or, it seemed, their bullpen, which with at least one sure-thing starter reinforces South Carolina's lofty ranking. "It's a club that probably has a chance to win it all," Polk said.

The Bulldogs didn't win the series and lost their share of first in the West. Still State players did not seem downcast Sunday, and not because they had been beaten by the #2-ranked club in the country. This loss in was a far, far more competitive showing than the series opener when South Carolina pummeled the home team 20-3. And, the Dogs did hang in long enough to take an extra inning Saturday win and avoid the sweep.

So some veterans came away strangely encouraged Sunday. "We talked a lot after Friday's game, how embarrassing that was to us," reported Rea. "As seniors we said some things in the locker room. We're not going to let it happen again, especially on TV. A loss is a loss but for everybody in the world to see it, it's not very fun. We're going to play our tails off."

"We're just going to have to do better," said Johnson. "The SEC is going to be close and whoever makes the least mistakes is going to win ball games."

The Bulldogs are at home all this week, with Kentucky coming to town for the next series. But before then State has to host Tuesday-Wednesday set with Memphis. "We've got Tyler Whitney, Jared Koon, or Jesse Carver," Polk said. "We've got to piece together the midweek so we don't hurt our weekend."

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