USC Hangs On To Secure Berth In Super Regionals

Chad Blackwell looked a bit shaky in the bottom of the 9th, giving up a run and three singles but he came through when it counted, striking out the final two batters with the tying and winning runs on base as USC held off UNC, 7-6, Sunday before over 5,600 fans. The victory clinched a spot in the Super Regional round for the Gamecocks, who, as the National No. 2 sed, are guaranteed to host. The Gamecocks will face the winner of the East Carolina Regional starting Friday at Sarge Frye Field.

The championship round game Sunday between South Carolina and North Carolina came down to one pitch.

As has usually been the case for USC against the Tar Heels the last three years, the Gamecocks made the play.

Chad Blackwell, USC's extraordinary closer, struckout UNC's Sammy Hewitt looking with two outs and two runners on in the bottom of the 9th to preserve the Gamecocks' thrilling 7-6 victory before a sellout crowd of 5,606 at sunny Sarge Frye Field in the final game of the NCAA Regionals.

The win secured USC's fifth straight trip to the Super Regional. The Gamecocks will face the winner of the East Carolina Regional starting Friday at Sarge Frye Field in Columbia.

It was the third straight year the Gamecocks have eliminated the Tar Heels from the NCAA Tournament.

The unsung hero for USC was reliever Jason Fletcher, who took over for an ineffective Billy Buckner at the start of the 4th inning and limited the UNC offense to five hits and one run over the next five innings to help USC maintain the lead.

Kevin Melillo (3-for-4, 2 RBI) had the key blow of the game, a two-run homer in the 4th that gave USC a 6-4 lead. Steve Pearce, the Regional MVP, was 3-for-4 with 2 RBI.

Knowing his club was running of quality arms, UNC head coach Mike Fox took a do-or-die approach to the game, hoping the Tar Heels could somehow survive the first game and that lightning would strike in the second.

The strategy backfired, as UNC starter Garry Bakker, who hurled 4.2 innings against Coastal Carolina Friday, took the mound first and was promptly touched for a leadoff double to left-center on the first pitch by Steve Tolleson.

After Bryan Triplett struckout, Pearce singled home Tolleson with the first run of the game. Powell walked and Melillo singled to load the bases for Winn, who walked on a 3-2 pitch to force home a run.

Campbell hit a comebacker to the mound. Bakker hesitated for a moment before firing to second, which cost him as Campbell beat the relay throw to first, scoring Powell with the third run of the inning. Ryan Mahoney flied out to deep center for the third out.

Buckner protected the lead well in the bottom of the 1st, as he got UNC's most dangerous hitters (Chris Iannetta and Marshall Hubbard) out on a groundout and strikeout.

In the bottom of the 2nd, Pearce continued his torrid pace (3-for-6, 3 HR, 7 RBI coming in) with a clutch line drive double down the left field line with two outs to score Mark Stanley, who had singled, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Tolleson and moved to third on a deep fly to right-center by Triplett.

Buckner surrendered a two-out run-scoring single in the bottom of the 2nd before the fourth error of the Regional by Melillo led to another run on a single up the middle, cutting USC's lead to 4-2.

Michael Campbell and Ryan Mahoney singled with two outs in the top of the 3rd to bring up Stanley. He was plunked on a 1-2 pitch to load the bases for Tolleson, who swung on the first pitch and lofted a lazy fly to medium center for the third out. USC left six runners stranded through the first three innings.

Buckner continued to exhibit signs of being off his game by walking the leadoff batter in the bottom of the 3rd on four pitches and then giving up a single to right. A sacrifice bunt moved both runners into scoring position.

Buckner, though, battled back to strikeout the next batter on a 3-2 pitch. However, he then made a bonehead play to allow two runs to score. Buckner uncorked a wild pitch, which ricocheted off Powell toward the front of the plate. Buckner raced in and tried to underhand the ball to Powell. The ball got past Powell and went to the screen, allowing both runners to score and tie the game at 4-4.

Melillo attoned for his error by launching a towering two-run homer with two outs in the 4th. Pearce had previously reached on a hit batman.

Jason Fletcher took over for the ineffective Buckner at the start of the UNC 4th and promptly retired the Tar Heels in order (F-8, 1-3, K). Mark Stanley reached base for the third straight time in the top of the 5th but he was picked off 1-3-6.

Fletcher gave up a leadoff double in the bottom of the 5th but struckout Iannetta and Hubbard, as the crowd roared. He also struckout the next batter to get out of the inning and complete the hat trick against UNC's 3-4-5 hitters.

Tolleson and Triplett walked to open the USC 6th, setting the stage for a breakout inning. Pearce ripped a single into left that was mishandled by the UNC leftfielder. By the time the smoke cleared, Tolleson had scored, giving USC a 7-4 lead, and Triplett and Pearce were both in scoring position.

However, Powell struckout for the fifth time in the Regional. Melillo was intentionally walked to load the bases. The strategy worked, as Winn also struckout, making Powell and Winn a combined 0-for-21 in the Regional. Campbell worked the count full before flying out to the warning track in center for the final out. It was the second time USC had left the bases loaded.

After UNC opened the bottom of the 6th with three consecutive singles to load the bases, a 5-3 double play (Triplett fielded a grounder, stepped on third and threw to first) plated a run but gave USC two precious outs. The play proved even more pivotal when the next batter flied to left, meaning UNC still trailed by two runs entering the latter stages of the game.

Fletcher was impressive in the 7th, retiring UNC's 2-3-4 hitters in order without the ball leaving the infield. USC followed suit in the top of the 8th, although Powell did drive one to the warning track in center.

Fletcher gave up a harmless one-out single in the bottom of the 8th, setting the stage for Chad Blackwell in the 9th.

In the top of the 9th, Michael Campbell doubled down the left field line with two outs to put a potential insurance run into scoring position. But Hank Parks grounded out 6-3 to end the inning.

Blackwell gave up a leadoff single to right in the bottom of the 9th before recording the first out on a popup to short. However, a single past Pearce at first and a single through the hole by Iannetta plated a run and brought up the always dangerous Hubbard, UNC's cleanup,and best, hitter.

After a visit from Jerry Meyer, Blackwell struckout Hubbard on four pitches to rock the ballpark. It was Hubbard's third whiff of the day.

Blackwell went full on UNC's next hitter (Sammy Hewitt) before a foul ball only increased the tension. The next pitch was on the black on the outside corner for strike three.

REGIONAL NOTES: USC is now 6-1 against UNC in the NCAA Tournament in the last three years, and 7-1 overall if you count the regular season game at Fort Mill, SC in early May. All of the post-season games have been played in Columbia . .USC is 16-2 in NCAA Regional games since 2000. . .Landon Powell and Brendan Winn were a combined 0-for-22 in the Regional. Still, the Gamecocks swept through to the Super Regionals without a loss.

LINESCORE

USC – 310 201 000 = 7-11-2

UNC – 022 001 001 = 6-11-1

WP – Jason Fletcher (5-1)

LP – Andrew Miller (6-3)

SAVE-Chad Blackwell (17)

HR- USC, Kevin Melillo (4th, one on)

TIME- 2:50

A- 5,606.

Super Regional Schedule: Fri. 6/11 – South Carolina v. Winner of East Carolina Regional Sat. 6/12 – South Carolina v. Winner of East Carolina Regional Sun. 6/13 – South Carolina v. Winner of East Carolina Regional (If Nec.)

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories