Judgment Day Saturday

South Carolina rallied back to win game two of their series against LSU Friday night to split the double-header, creating what will be a wild Saturday afternoon in conference play. Four teams have an opportunity to at least share an SEC Championship. South Carolina, LSU, Kentucky, and Florida will all have their fates decided Saturday afternoon.

It all comes down to this. One day. One game. SEC Championship on the line.

For three teams the goal is clear; win and you're an SEC Champion. For a fourth team, it is win and get a little help.

No matter the sport, conference play in the SEC is a grind. Baseball is no different. Entering the weekend, four teams had an opportunity to at least earn a share of the SEC Championship. After 29 games – 28 in South Carolina's case – nothing has changed. Second ranked South Carolina and ninth ranked LSU split the Friday double-header with LSU winning 5-2 in game one and Carolina coming back to earn a 5-4 victory in game two. Coupled with Kentucky's loss to Mississippi State and Florida's win over Auburn, Saturday will be an interesting day in the SEC.

South Carolina would win the SEC Championship outright with a win regardless of what Kentucky or Florida does. LSU would win the SEC Championship outright with a win and Kentucky loss. A Kentucky and LSU win would create a tie between the two. Both would be crowned SEC Champions, but Kentucky would be the number one seed in next week's SEC Tournament after winning two of three against the Tigers. Florida would earn a share of the title with a win over Auburn and Carolina loss.

LSU pounded out 12 hits in the first game and Kevin Gausman was unhittable until the ninth inning as the Tigers had to hold on for the win with the tying run at the plate. Gausman was able to induce pinch hitter Kyle Martin into a groundout to end the game.

"I think you have to tip your hat to Gausman in the first game," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "He's everything I heard he was and more. I know he was impressive today. I don't think he's going to be a guy that needs a lot of seasoning in the minor leagues. He's really special."

In the second game it was LSU freshman Aaron Nola that appeared to have the Gamecock offense shut down. However, a four run sixth, highlighted by a Christian Walker three-run homerun gave the Gamecocks a lead that it would not relinquish.

"We got beat the first game; they outpitched us and outplayed us," Michael Roth said, who lost his first decision of the year in the first game. "We were scuffling a little bit the first couple of innings (of game two) but we battled it out and were able to get a few off of Nola. It was a great win and obviously we needed it."

Just like game one, LSU pounced on starter Forrest Koumas in the first inning. After Koumas struck out the first two batters, back-to-back walks followed by a Tyler Moore single up the middle gave LSU a 1-0 lead.

The Tigers played some more small ball in the third to score another run. Raph Rhymes delivered a one-out single and advanced all the way to third on a Christian Walker error off the bat of Tyler Moore. Alex Edward laid down a squeeze bunt and Koumas could not get the ball out of his glove in time to get Rhymes at the plate. LSU would score its third run in the fifth as Moore drove in his second run of the game with a bloop single to left.

Meanwhile, Nola was cruising. Through five innings Nola had given up just two hits, both to Adam Matthews. It was the sixth inning when Carolina's bats finally came to life. After back-to-back singles from Tanner English and Evan Marzilli, Christian Walker hit a bomb over the wall in left that sailed over the walkway and under the scoreboard to tie the game. Joey Pankake followed that up with a two-out triple to right center to score Grayson Greiner from first and gave Carolina its first lead of the series, 4-3. Nola would retire Connor Bright to end the inning, but that would be the end of the day for the freshman, who fell to 6-4 on the season with the loss.

"Nola was impressive," Tanner said. "We kind of hung in there down three. If they get a couple more runs in then it gets tough. We were just trying to get the tying run to the plate. Finally we got Walker up there to hit a big one for us, then Greiner and Pankake go the other way and all of a sudden we take the lead."

Carolina nearly gave the lead up as fast as they got it. Evan Beal came on to replace Tyler Webb, who pitched 1.2 innings in relief of Koumas, but Beal quickly walked Rhymes and Moore to open the frame. Tanner made the decision to go with closer Matt Price in an extended relief appearance. Price got Edward to pop up a sacrifice bunt attempt, then struck out pinch hitter Jackson Slaid and JaCoby Jones to end the inning and strand the runners.

"When I came into that situation, I knew the guy was going to bunt," Price said. "I tried to get a pitch that he had to reach for and he popped it up and we ended up getting out of that inning. After that it was just control the damage and that's what I did."

Carolina would add an insurance run on in the seventh when Matthews hit one deep to left that appeared to clear the wall and hit the rail, but third base umpire Todd Henderson ruled it in play and Matthews ended up with an RBI double that scored Marzilli. An irate Tanner burst out of the dugout to argue the call, but the umpires huddled and would not overturn the call.

"The ground rule is anything above the yellow line is a homerun or ground-rule double if it bounces before it goes over the yellow line," Tanner said. "From where I saw it I thought it hit the rail in the air based on the ricochet. You have to battle for your team. I don't know that they missed it. Whether it was a homerun or double, we needed that run and that was big for us."

LSU looked to have another rally going in the eighth. Tyler Hanover led off with a double and Austin Nola followed with a single, giving the Tigers had runners on the corners for the meat of their line-up. Price struck out Arby Fields and Katz before Rhymes blooped an RBI single into center to score Hanover. Price answered by striking out Moore to end the threat.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again; I think sometimes he puts men on base sometimes just to do it," Roth said of Price. "He came in and saved Beal and did a great job that inning. He decided to put some more men on base so he could K some more guys I guess. He's always great for us and we always like to see him coming out of the pen the last couple of innings."

Webb earned the win, improving to 5-0 on the season, while Price earned his ninth save and struck out seven in three innings. Matthews tied a season high with three hits and drove in a run. Walker had three RBI on the homerun and Pankake had one as well. Rhymes was 2-for-3 with an RBI to lead LSU, and Moore drove in two runs.

South Carolina improved 39-14 on the season and 18-10 in conference play after the double-header, while LSU fell to 41-14 and 18-11 in conference play. Tanner said Colby Holmes, Jordan Montgomery, and possibly Evan Beal are all candidates to start the regular season finale, but the staff chose Holmes late Friday evening. Tyler Webb, Nolan Belcher, Montgomery, and Beal are available out of the bullpen, but Tanner begrudgingly said that one pitcher the Tigers won't be facing is Price.

"Price, more than likely, will get the day off," Tanner said. "I probably won't use him. He might tell me he's good for two or three outs but he's unlikely to make an appearance tomorrow. He would have to do the convincing, I wouldn't be."

SEC Race

1. South Carolina 18-10
2. Kentucky 18-11
2. LSU 18-11
2. Florida 18-11

*Note – South Carolina could still win the SEC East and clinch the number two seed for the SEC Tournament even if they lose, but would need Kentucky and Florida to lose as well. Both teams own the tiebreaker over the Gamecocks.

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