Carolina Fireworks Fall Short
South Carolina and Georgia played a classic game of baseball Friday night, with the winner in doubt until the very last pitch. It was a back and forth affair that finally ended in the Bulldogs favor, evening the three game series at one win apiece. The loss ensures that the 2007 season will be without a single conference sweep, something that has never happened since USC joined the SEC in 1992.
USC secured a spot in next week's SEC tournament with Thursday night's win, and probably a spot as an NCAA regional host as well, while Georgia was eliminated from the SEC tournament, effectively ending their season after this weekend. So what did the two teams have to play for? Georgia simply had it's pride on the line, while the Gamecocks still have a chance at one of the eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament and the SEC's #3 seed in next week's tournament. The pride won out this night, but the Gamecocks are still in a race that now goes down to the final day of the regular season for that #3 spot.
South Carolina is now 39-16 and 16-13 in conference play, while Georgia is 23-32 and 11-18 in the SEC. Bulldog starting pitcher Nathan Moreau pitched five solid innings to earn his sixth win of the year, allowing four runs on eight hits with four strikeouts and two walks. Carolina starting pitcher Arik Hempy suffered the loss and is now 5-2 on the year. He went four innings and allowed six runs, five earned, on eight hits with five walks and three strikeouts.
"Hempy wasn't as sharp as he has been," USC Head Coach Ray Tanner said after his team's loss. "But he battled hard for us. He pitched himself out of a couple of jams and kept us alive in the game. We left some runners on, and we never could come up with the big hit."
Georgia scored first with a run in the top of the first inning as the first four Bulldog batters reached base. Ryan Peisel walked, Jonathan Wyatt singled with Peisel scoring on Gordon Beckham's RBI base hit. With the bases loaded and no outs, Hempy managed to get out of the inning with only the one run scoring, with two strikeouts sandwiching a pop out.
South Carolina tied the game back at one in the bottom half of the inning as James Darnell smacked his 18th home run of the year deep over the right field fence. It extended Darnell's hitting streak to 12 games and tied him with Travis Jones for the team lead. USC stranded 12 runners in the game.
Darnell commented on the loss after the game: "It was a tough one, but give Georgia credit. They capitalized on our mistakes and played a little bit better. I had an opportunity (for the home run), and other guys had opportunities, but they pitched well in those situations."
Georgia scored twice more in the second inning, but Carolina again rallied to tie it, this time on a two run homer by Phil Disher, who hit his 14th long ball of the year. In the second inning, USC was responsible for not capitalizing on a bases loaded situation for the second time in the game.
"We ended up with 10 hits, but we left too many out there," Tanner said. "We just weren't able to come up with a couple of big hits. Give Georgia credit. They were able to pitch out of some jams, and we weren't."
Georgia took a page from USC and used the long ball to retake the lead in the fourth inning. With one man on base and two outs, Gordon Beckham hit a two-run homer to left field, giving the Bulldogs a 5-3 edge. UGA would get another in the fifth inning to go up by three runs.
South Carolina scored its final run in the bottom of the fifth inning when Justin Smoak rejoined the arms race with his 18th homer of the year, tying Jones and Darnell. The Gamecocks have hit 36 home runs in the last 15 games.
The mood had grown dark in the stadium as Georgia matched every Carolina rally with one of their own, when USC assistant coach Jim Toman decided to light a fire. Upset with the home plate umpire for strike calls made in the fifth inning, he stormed home plate. The normally low key Toman let loose and screamed at the umpire until he was officially thrown out of the game, and then kicked dirt on home plate to register his extreme displeasure. As he strode towards the dugout, pausing long enough to exchange high fives with a couple of players, the crowd went wild, and Toman acknowledged their applause, pausing one last time to raise both hands to the right field bleachers before exiting the field.
The final four innings were a pitchers' duel, with both teams held scoreless by the respective relief staffs. Carolina reliever Alex Farotto pitched four hitless innings with five strikeouts, and Curtis Johnson pitched a scoreless ninth inning. Bulldogs' reliever Joshua Fields earned a save in 1.1 innings of work, allowing one hit. USC had loaded the bases one more time when Fields came on in the bottom of the eighth and was able to get Smoak to line out to right field to preserve the Georgia lead.
South Carolina will now be either the third, fourth or fifth seed at the SEC Tournament, depending on results in Saturday afternoon's SEC action. The finale of the three-game SEC series between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs is scheduled for Saturday at 4 p.m., with the game to be televised live on Fox Sports Net.
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