Meltdown Costs USC Game One

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - North Carolina took advantage of every opportunity it could. South Carolina let a golden one slip right through its fingers. The No. 6 Gamecocks blew a 6-0 sixth-inning lead in the span of two innings Friday and dropped game one of its Super Regional to No. 2 North Carolina, 9-6.

The heads were hanging afterward, not just for losing, but for gift-wrapping a winnable game and handing it to the Tar Heels.

"They didn't beat us because we weren't at our best, but we didn't make it a great, great battle because we didn't play as good as we possibly can," USC coach Ray Tanner said following his team's disappointing loss. "That's the way the game is... it'll humble you."

The Gamecocks still looked shell-shocked in the post-game press conference and deservedly so. They seemingly had the game in hand after Robbie Grinestaff delivered a two-out, two-strike pinch-hit grand slam in the sixth, increasing a 2-0 lead to 6-0. Harris Honeycutt was getting the job done on the mound, and the Gamecocks were 12 outs away from a win, not to mention one game closer to the College World Series. But then it fell apart, devastatingly so, with a series of two-out Tar Heel hits. Errors at the worst possible times and a shoddy bullpen let UNC know it was still in the game, and the Heels took advantage.When the smoke cleared, the Gamecocks (45-19) were left staring at a sickening statistic - all nine runs the Heels notched came with two outs, several set up when UNC batters reached on two-strike base knocks.

"We don't make a couple of plays defensively, and when you combine that with an outstanding hitting team that they had, that's when you get yourself in trouble," Tanner said.

It began when Honeycutt allowed two straight two-out doubles in the sixth, making it 6-1 and bringing Kyle Seager to the plate. Seager bounced a grounder to Reese Havens at shortstop, but Havens, who was perhaps confused by a runner leapfrogging the ball, lost it. Two more runs scored before Curtis Johnson relieved and got out of the inning, but there might as well have been a black cloud hanging above the USC dugout - the ominous strains of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" were starting to bleed through the PA speakers. Johnson had already given up one run on a full-count single, but the seventh increased his misery. After recording the first two outs, Johnson gave up two-strike hits to Tim Federowicz, Josh Horton, Chad Flack and Seager to plate three runs. The second was particularly vexing, after Horton laced a shallow fly ball to left field. Cheyne Hurst, in for starter Jon Willard after Grinestaff had pinch-hit, charged the ball and tried to make a shoestring catch. The ball bounced under Hurst's glove for a double. Johnson was soon history and Jeff Jeffords came in.

Jeffords, so stellar in relief all year that several media outlets had classified him USC's pitching MVP, was drafted earlier Friday. He showed no reason why against the Tar Heels, however, as he walked the only two batters he faced, forcing in the tying run with a 3-1 high fastball to nine-hole hitter Garrett Gore. Jeffords left and Will Atwood came in, who gave up an RBI single to Reid Fronk. Then Tim Fedroff hit a soft grounder off Atwood's leg, which slowly rolled to Havens. Normally sure-handed (he'd only made 10 errors all season despite playing at the most error-prone position), Havens muffed the grounder and two more runs scored.

The Heels led 9-6, the bullpen was in tatters and Tanner had no choice but to suck it up and play for the next day.

"I didn't make two plays that I always make tonight," said Havens, eyes barely peeking out from under the brim of his cap. "Pretty much, you can put four runs on me tonight. Nothing I can say other than it's my fault."

Tanner wasn't pointing out specific blame but mentioned he was disappointed in the bullpen's performance and how USC didn't take advantage of its opportunities. The only runs the Gamecocks scored were on Grinestaff's blast and a two-run shot from James Darnell, which gave USC a 2-0 lead on the game's first three pitches. None of it mattered, however, after the Tar Heels lashed two-strike hit after two-out hit, erasing a six-run deficit in the span of three outs over two innings. The Gamecocks, ever mindful of a Super Regional flop at Georgia last year after winning the first game, said they'd flush Friday and be ready for Saturday's match up.

Game two is at 7 p.m. Saturday evening. No one needed to remind the Gamecocks what happens with another miserable outing.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that the Tar Heels would come roaring back at us, and they did just that," Tanner said. "You're up six to nothing. and it'll get you. We'll try to get even (in game two)."

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