Arkansas' 3-2 Win Sends USC Home from Tourney

It was all there - after trailing Arkansas for the whole game, Carolina was down 3-1 with one out and had the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning. The winning run was at the plate, with Harley Lail, the opening game hero at bat. But USC only managed to bring home one run, and the Hawgs brought home the bacon, winning 3-2 and probably sealing their bid for a national seed in the NCAAs.

Arkansas and South Carolina came into Saturday's game with both teams contending for a national seed. With Vanderbilt already a lock for one seed, it is unlikely that the SEC would be granted three of the eight national seeds, so these two teams put on their game faces and prepared for war to determine who would get that prestigious national seed and a guarantee of a home Super Regional if they win their home Regional. Arkansas had been the dominant team in this year's SEC tournament, and though it was closer, they continued that role and advanced to Sunday's championship game.

Talking about the situation in the bottom of the eighth, South Carolina Head Coach Ray Tanner admitted it was frustrating. "We worked hard to get those runners in scoring position. (Designated hitter Phil) Disher had a big walk. We just weren't able to come up with the hit that would have made the game entirely different."

Tanner said, "We played our hearts out there today. We had our chances late, they had a couple chances to increase their lead, and we were able to hold them off. We made a couple mistakes that allowed them a run or two, and it came back to haunt us."

Justin Smoak broke out of his personal slump today, ending an 0 for 15 streak with two hits today, but he was obviously disappointed when he spoke after the game: "It was a big, big game for us, and I thought our pitching staff did it's job for us, and our offense just came up short today. " South Carolina starting pitcher Blake Cooper suffered the loss and is now 7-2 on the year. Cooper went 5.2 innings and allowed three runs on six hits with five strikeouts and one walk allowed.

South Carolina now looks ahead to next weekend's opening play in the national playoffs, where South Carolina is expected to host an opening round NCAA Regional in what could be the final games ever played at Sarge Frye Field in Columbia. The 16 NCAA Regional host sites will be announced at approximately 3:15 pm on Sunday afternoon. The Gamecocks will not know the other three teams in their regional until Monday afternoon, when it will be announced at 12:30 pm on ESPN. With Saturday's loss, the chances for USC hosting a Super Regional are slim, unless the team with a national seed that the Columbia Regional is paired with loses their opening playoff round. USC is now 42-18, having gone 2-2 in the SEC Tournament. Arkansas is now 41-18, and is 3-0 in the tournament heading into Sunday's championship game with either Mississippi or Vanderbilt. Those two teams are also playing Saturday to determine which one will advance to play Arkansas.

The Arkansas starting pitchers in their first two games were the talk of the tournament, and their starter for this game, Duke Welker wanted to continue his team's success: "I just saw Jess (Todd) and Nick (Schmidt) get it going and then it was my shot. I'm glad we got a win out of it." Welker struck out eight batters in seven innings of work and allowed just one run on seven hits, with no walks.

Tanner said, "The report on Arkansas coming into the tournament was that they had outstanding pitching, not just good pitching, outstanding pitching, and Welker was certainly among that group." Tanner again intimated that while he did not want to jinx Arkansas, he clearly thought the Razorbacks are strong contenders for winning this year's national championship. "I like their chances as they move forward," he said.

The Razorbacks opened a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning. Logan Forsythe singled with one out, advanced to second base on Blake Cooper's balk, and scored on a RBI single from Jeff Nutt. Unexpected starters produced unexpected results as rare starters Drew Martin and Jon Willard got single hits apiece in the second inning, but the regular starters behind them were unable to bring them home. UA had no such problem when they were up next, adding two more in the third inning. Jake Dugger followed up singles from Wayne Hrozek and Tim Smalling with a RBI base hit with Smalling also scoring on a RBI ground out from Casey Coon.

South Carolina tagged Welker for a run in the third inning. James Darnell knocked a one-out single and advanced to third base on a double from Justin Smoak. Phil Disher got the Gamecocks on the scoreboard, as he just missed a home run with a long sacrifice fly to left field to score Darnell. It was another noisy out that would have been a home run in most SEC ballparks. Carolina almost scored a second run as well when Andrew Crisp singled to left field but Smoak was gunned down at home plate by Arkansas left fielder Casey Coon to end the inning and preserve a two-run Arkansas lead.

The stellar pitching that has been the hallmark of the tournament was the story of the middle innings, as the pitchers for both teams kept their opponent from scoring any runs in the fourth through seventh innings.

Carolina crept to within a run in the eighth inning against Hill. Darnell led off with an infield single followed by a base hit by Smoak and a walk to Phil Disher to load the bases with no outs. The Gamecocks would score their first run on a fielder's choice RBI from Harley Lail. With runners on the corners and two outs, Hill was able to work out of the jam with a strikeout against Drew Martin to keep the Hogs ahead by a run. After the drama in the bottom of the eighth, Arkansas had three stolen bases in the top of the 9th, but Tim Smalling was gunned down at first by James Darnell to end the top of the inning. It didn't matter, as USC went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth to seal the win for the Razorbacks.

When asked about his team's chances in the NCAA Tournament, Tanner said, "I think we can be a dangerous team, we've seemed like we've been somewhat inconsistent but that's a critique of a head coach of my own players. We've won 42 games, and that's not easy to do in college baseball, especially when you compete in this conference. I don't think anybody will circle us and say ‘We'd like to play the Gamecocks.' We're going to go back and regroup and get ready to play again."

Notes: As noted by Smoak, USC pitched well today, and reliever Alex Farotto was solid in relief of Cooper as well, as he pitched 3.1 scoreless innings and allowed just one hit and two walks while striking out five batters.

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