Carolina Headed To The Sunday SEC Championship

Ray Tanner's Yardcocks took on the #1-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks today in the semifinals in Hoover for a chance to face Vanderbilt for the Championship on Sunday ...

The day began auspiciously for the Gamecocks when Billy Buckner was credited with two wild pitches in the first inning - yet it cost him no runs. Buckner had only three wild pitches all season prior to today's first inning shotgunning. Still South Carolina managed to retire the side and open on a positive note against the #1 seeded Razorbacks with a throw down to third by Landon Powell, combined with a strike out and ground out to end the first half of inning one.

Steve Tolleson opened the game at the plate for USC with a line shot off of Arkansas third baseman Brett Hagedorn, who was charged with an error - Tolleson's trip to first should have been earned. Brian Triplett SAC bunted Tolleson to second on a two strike pitch - Brian appeared to be safe at first. The Umps in Hoover have been consistently giving ties to defenders in all games in this tournament despite other directives mentioned in the rule book. Landon Powell grounded out to first and Tolleson advanced to third. Brendan Winn promptly looped a two-out single to right sending Tolleson across the plate for the first score of the game. Kevin Melillo went down swinging to end the inning but it cost Justin White 21 pitches to get out of the first with the Cocks leading 1-0.

Buckner, with the help of Landon Powell on a bang bang strikeout then quick throw to second - and despite a high-hop fielding error on Triplett at third, would hold the Hawgs scoreless in the top of the second. Likewise, Steve Pearce, Michael Campbell and Ryan Mahoney would go down in order for Arkansas' White to close out the second inning.

Arkansas made things interesting in the top of the third when they loaded the bases with two outs and their clean-up man Scott Hode coming to the plate. But Buckner had had enough of the inning and he proceeded to sit Hode down with three pitches, bang bang bang ... the inning was over with the Arkansas short stop whoofing at nothing but air.

Davy Gregg led off the third for the Gamecocks and allowed White to record his third strikeout of the day. Tolleson sent one to deep right for out number two. Bryan Triplett went long to right center for the third out of the inning. The score remained 1-0 in favor of the Cocks.

With both pitchers grooving through three, Haas Pratt led off the fourth for Arkansas with a ground shot to Triplett at third who notched the first out of the inning for SC. DH (designated hitter) Danny Hamblin registered Buckner's fourth strikeout in as many innings. Brady Toops grounded out to first to retire the side 1-2-3 for the Cocks who were coming to the plate for their half of the fourth.

Leading off was Landon Powell batting left-handed and he rocketed three shots foul down the right line before striking out on a low and outside change-up fourth pitch by White. Both pitchers now had four strikeouts. Brendan Winn was next and and he went down looking giving Justin White his fifth strikeout of the game. Melillo flied out to deep center and the inning was over, USC 1, Arkansas 0. Another pitchers' duel appeared to be on.

Devin Day grounded-out to third to lead off the fifth for Arkansas. RF Scott Bridges fought Buckner at the plate but failed to prevent the inevitable as Buckner picked up his fifth strikeout of the game on the Hawgs' second out of the inning. Next up Jake Dugger pushed the count full, and on Buckner's 78th pitch Jake drove one down the first base line for a two out double. Casey Rowlett was at the plate but Dugger, a wiley baseballer, baited Landon Powell into a pickoff attempt that gave Jake the opportunity to take third. Buckner then proceeded to walk Rowlett and Jerry Meyers decided to take to the mound to calm Buckner. It worked. Billy faced-off against Hagedorn and served up the right pitch for Brett to fly out to Gregg in center. Top of the fifth finally over, Cocks still leading one-zip.

Steve Pearce would take a strike for the first pitch of the bottom of the fifth, before lining a shot to the left-field corner that was snared by a running diving grabbing Jake Dugger - an outstanding defensive play. These Hawgs were game. Campbell popped out to Toops, the Arkansas catcher, and Brian Mahoney worked his way into a walk, the first of the afternoon given-up by White. Justin White had never gone beyond four and two-thirds innings until now. Davy Gregg tested White's stamina but lost by grounding out to second to end the inning. Gamecocks still leading 1-0 heading into the sixth.

Hode would pop-foul-out to Steve Pearce to begin the sixth for the Hawgs. Haas Pratt earned a walk off of Buckner after getting behind 1-2 in the count ... Buckner's third walk of the afternoon. Hamblin poked a base hit into shallow right giving Arkansas another threat with two on and only one out and Brady Toops coming to the plate. Arkansas had the hit-and-run on preventing the double-play on a grounder to short. Buckner was now at the 108 pitch count with two outs and runners on first and third. Jerry Meyers decided it was time to take another trip to the mound. With Devin Day at the plate, it was up to Buckner to end the inning ... and as if it was written in a script Billy got behind in the count 3-0 before forcing Day to line the ball straight back to him on the mound for the third out. Inning over, no damage done. RHP Jason Fletcher was warming up in the Carolina bullpen.

If the Gamecocks were going to add an insurance run or two, the bottom of the sixth seemed like a good time to do it. Steve Tolleson, the top of the SC order, led off the inning and Justin White was still in the game for Arkansas. Tolleson forced a walk by White, only his second, and the Gamecocks had a man on with no outs and Bryan Triplett at the plate. You could hear USC fans whispering "bunt" as Triplett laid it down and then hustled to first for an infield hit. No outs, runners at first and second, and catcher Landon Powell coming to the plate. If the Hawg fans were not nervous it was only because they didn't know about Powell, the Gamecocks' leading homerun hitter (#1 SEC) and RBI man. Powell lined one into left center off a fake bunt and USC went up 2-0 with runners at both corners - Brendan Winn coming to the plate. No outs. It was time for Justin White to sit down as Arkansas went to their pen for RHP Boyd Goodner with his 1.64 ERA, leading Arkansas in appearances and holding opponents to a .263 batting average. While Powell is number one in HRs and RBIs for the Gamecocks, Winn is number two (HRs #3 SEC) in both categories ... and he took the first pitch strike from Goodner. Winn would force Goodner to work him into a full count before dropping a shallow center field hit over the Arkansas SS to send Triplett home and give the Gamecocks a 3-nothing lead. Still no outs, runners at first and second for the Gamecocks. Kevin Melillo bunted back to the pitcher to allow a force at third, runners still at first and second but now with one out and Steve Pearce at the plate. Pearce took the first pitch strike, he was 0-2 for the day, 2-10 on the tournament going into that at bat. It got no better for Steve as he popped out to the catcher Toops in right foul territory. Campbell was next and the table was set with two outs and runners on first and second for the left-handed hitting left fielder against the RHP Goodner. Campbell grounded-out to first to end the inning with South Carolina leading 3-0 heading into the seventh.

Arik Hempy was the surprise pitcher to take the mound in the seventh for the Cocks and a brilliant put-out by Steve Pearce on a hard bunt by Bridges of Arkansas for the first out of the inning. Jake Dugger doubled to left center with one out - he is a baseball player. Then with Hempy having pitched to only two batters Ray Tanner decided to go to his bullpen once again this time finally bringing in Fletcher. Fletcher got ahead in the count 0-2 and Rowlett grounded to SS Tolleson - but Jake Dugger gambled and lost as Tolleson threw out Dugger dig-dugging for third. South Carolina then turned a double-play when they only needed one out to end the inning .... it was a sign that the Gamecocks were now in command. They had a fresh arm on the mound, a three run lead, and they were through the meat of the Arkansas batting order. Everyone expected the leather to be laid to the Hawgs by the Cocks from this point forward. Depth and experience had become the deciding factors - or at least that was the common thought at the moment.

Ryan Mahoney drove one to the right field wall for the first out of the seventh inning for the Cocks. Davy Gregg over-bunted himself into the second out of the inning. Steve Tolleson flied-out to left-center on the first pitch for the third out in the bottom of the seventh. USC still led 3-0.

Fletcher bluntly sat Arkansas down one-two-three in the top of the eighth.

The Gamecocks too would go down in order in the bottom of the eighth and the game now moved into the all important ninth. South Carolina needed three outs to advance to the championship game on Sunday against Vanderbilt. This is what it is all about.

Top of the ninth, SC leading Arkansas 3-0. Jason Fletcher on the mound for the Gamecocks and Brady Toops at the plate for the Hawgs ... Fletcher got ahead 1-2 in the count but lost Toops with a walk. Arkansas saw an opening and brought in Bubs Merrill as a pinch hitter for Day - Jerry Meyers countered by going to his bullpen and hailing the SEC's saves leader, Chad Blackwell, to the mound. Merrill did a nice job singling off of Blackwell through the infield gap in right and Arkansas brought the tying run to the plate in Scott Bridges - the ninth man in the Arkansas order. Bridges hit another squibber through the 1st base 2nd base gap and the bases were loaded with Jake Dugger coming to the plate. It was Dugger Vs Blackwell. Dugger drives one to short center and one run scored on Jake's fourth hit of the day. The Gamecocks lead was cut to 3-1 and the bases were still loaded with no outs for the Hawgs. Blackwell was in a jam but got up early in the count, 0-2, to Casey Rowlett before fanning Rowlett for the first out of the inning. Blackwell went after Hagedorn but Hagedorn went deep with a sacrifice fly to right that brought another Hawg home to cut the Gamecock lead to 3-2. Scott Hode was back at the plate in another key situation for Arkansas. Hode would ground out to Tolleson and the game was over - Chad Blackwell getting his 14th save of the season.

3-2 the final score ....... the Gamecocks were out-hit by Arkansas 10-4 on this day that began so auspiciously for Carolina. Arkansas stranded 11 runners on base. The Gamecocks' defense and pitching had a lot to do with that.

South Carolina (44-15) will face the other tourney unbeaten Vanderbilt (42-16) for the 2004 SEC Tournament Championship Sunday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. eastern. It will be the first all-Eastern Division championship game in the history of the tournament. South Carolina took two of three from Vanderbilt earlier in the season in Nashville and has dominated the overall series over the years. Arik Hempy is expected to start for the Gamecocks on Sunday.

South Carolina has assured itself a Super Regional Hosting bid with the three wins in the tournament. Sunday's Championship is for the icing on the cake.

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