Harley Pops the Clutch

USC continued it's magical ride into the post season with a dramatic 12th inning win over the Florida Gators in the opening game of the SEC tournament Wednesday. The 4-3 win built on the team's dramatic comeback win last Saturday at Sarge Frye Field. It took a backs-to-the-wall comeback on Wednesday to win as well. Read inside for the full story.

mag·ic - mysteriously enchanting; magical: magic beauty.

The last regular season game at The Sarge was a magical thing of beauty. Coming into Wednesday's opening game of the SEC Tournament, Gamecock fans wondered, "would it end there?" The team's gutty performance on a hot Alabama afternoon proved otherwise. Down 3-0 for much of the game, USC came back to win it 4-3 in 12 innings.

Will this magical ride continue? History has shown both outcomes – some leading to titles, while others were magic for just that moment. With the SEC Tournament underway, the Gamecocks continue to ride Sarge Frye's magic for now.

It seems fitting that Harris Honeycutt, the pitcher who brought some in attendance Saturday to tears, would start the first Gamecocks contest in the 2007 SEC Tournament. Also fitting for the opening day is the opponent. For it was during one vicious weekend of baseball pounding in Gainesville that the Gamecock Nation and the rest of the SEC was introduced to All-SEC second baseman, Travis Jones.

Jones won National Player of the Week after going 9-for-12, 5 HR, 7 R, and 11 RBI that weekend in Florida. His on-base-percentage was a robust .770, and this is the best statistic: no runners LOB for the entire series.

That being the case, Travis Jones aptly fouled out to the first baseman, Matt LaPorta, on the game's first pitch.

Harris Honeycutt looked like "first half Harris" initially, but reverted to "second half Harris" by the second inning. Walking the bases loaded Honeycutt, who had thrown 39 pitches through two innings, was lucky to get out of the inning giving up only one run.

"He struck out the first two batters of the game and I thought, ‘Wow. This is the Harris of old.' His stuff was pretty good," said Tanner, "His stuff was pretty good, but he walked some guys and that comes back to get ya'."

In the third the Gators continued to make Honeycutt labor for every out. Back-to-back doubles by Cole Figueroa and Avery Barnes to start the inning stretched the lead to two. Another walk by Honeycutt and a big single by Austin Pride, had the Gamecocks behind 3-0.

Though Honeycutt would settle down in the fourth, the damage was done. Not enough damage though, as the Gamecocks came back to manufacture two runs in the bottom of the sixth. The first run was driven in by pinch hitter Robbie Grinestaff. Another came around on a Cheyne Hurst sacrifice fly.

"We were gonna' bunt, but once the bunt was off, we let him hit," said Tanner. "Ya' know Robbie got a pinch hit in that Georgia game. He's been swinging the bat well and the ball fell in for him."

With Honeycutt's wildness working in the Gators favor, he'd had enough by the top of the seventh. After 109 pitches, Honeycutt walked five, struck out five and gave up three earned runs. Right hander Curtis Johnson made it interesting with a walk to load the bases, but got the next two outs to escape unscathed.

It was Johnson who'd prove to be the game changer. Not only did he come in relief and shut down Florida, he also made a fantastic play on a sure single up the middle. Twisting to his left, he grabbed a bullet and fired to Smoak in time to get the out in the top of the seventh.

"We got some pretty good relief pitching out of CuJo and Jeffords," said Gamecock Head Coach Ray Tanner, "I'm just glad we could win today and advance."

In the bottom of the seventh, possibly a turning point in the game, the Yardcocks executed a perfect hit and run after an error put Jones on first base. With Jones running, James Darnell slashed a ground ball between the first and second basemen moving Jones to third base in the process. The Gators would finally remove their fantastic freshman Kyle Mullaney pitcher in favor of LHP David Hurst.

"Everyone played real well. The defense played outstanding behind me," said Mulaney, "I just tried to keep us in the game."

Justin Smoak popped out. Travis Jones was only ninety feet away from tying the game. Phil Disher, Carolina's All-SEC DH lined a frozen rope to centerfield – just enough to allow Travis Jones time to tag up and score the tying run.

As the baseball cliché goes, it was a brand new ballgame, except this one wasn't scheduled for nine innings.

With a man on in the top of the tenth, James Darnell made an acrobatic attempt to cut down the lead runner on a dribbler towards third. The angle on the play alone should have had Darnell thinking about the sure out, regardless; he unsuccessfully threw to second for the force.

With one out and runners on first and second, Curtis Johnson induced a double play off of the bat of Austin Pride.

After 69 effective pitches, spanning 4.2 innings, the Gators were not able to even get a hit. When Jeff Jeffords came in to start the twelfth inning, his first pitch was hit up the middle for a single.

The game of chess intensified between Florida Head Coach Pat McMahon and USC's Coach Tanner. I sacrifice bunt moved the go-ahead run to second base. With first now open, Tanner elected to intentionally walk SEC Player of the Year Matt LaPorta. That move proved beneficial when Jeffords got the next out on a pop up, and then struck out Jon Townsend to end the inning.

After the game, LaPorta said in a sullen voice, "South Carolina's a great ball club. We did our best and we didn't come through today."

The coaches' chess match continued in the bottom of the twelfth, when Pat McMahon opted to intentionally walk both Phil Disher and pinch hitter Kyle Enders after Smoak reached on an error by Florida shortstop Cole Figueroa. With the bases now loaded and only one out Harley Lail strode to the plate looking to end it on a long fly ball.

"As the game picked up, I felt really good about us," said Lail, "We kept putting balls in play and our pitching came through in the end. We started making a lot of contact a lot more. I felt good about us." Florida's outfield moved in, but it would not matter. Lail singled up the middle, sending the Gamecocks to a 4-3 win, advancing them to a winner's match-up with another National powerhouse – the Arkansas Razorbacks. Arkansas had won in the first game Wednesday on a near no-hitter by Nick Schmidt.

"I think you have to give South Carolina an awful lot of credit. It was two teams who played their hearts out," said Head Coach Pat McMahon, "That's what tournament time does."

The Gamecocks look to throw Arik Hempy Thursday at 6 pm eastern against Razorbacks strikeout machine (11.7/9 IP) Jess Todd.

KEY MOMENT: James Darnell and Travis Jones executed a perfect hit and run, putting Jones on third rather than second base.

PLAYER OF THE GAME: It'd be too easy to give the game ball to Harley Lail for driving in the winning run. The true Player of the Game is Curtis Johnson who held the Gators hitless while he was on the hill for 4.2 innings.

NOTICEABLE NUMBERS: Justin Smoak was 0-for-5 with a walk in his first at bat. Reese Havens, who looked lost at the plate for eight innings singled in both the ninth and eleventh inning. In both of those innings Travis Jones, who was also hitless through eight, followed him up with two singles of his own.

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