Havens' walk-off HR sends USC to Hoover
Somebody call Disney.
The script was too good to write. With the Gamecocks' season on the line, Carolina needed a victory to ensure that their season would continue. If they lost, their fate rested in the hands of Kentucky and Mississippi State. With the Wildcats and Bulldogs both suffering losses, USC found itself needing to take care of business on their home field.
Not only was it the biggest game of the season, but it also marked the final time that South Carolina would play a game on historic Sarge Frye Field before their move to a new ballpark next season.
You can't make this stuff up.
And if you think that was as good as it got, you were far from right. With Tennessee's three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning that knotted the game at eight, South Carolina sent off the Sarge in amazing fashion.
Senior Harley Lail blooped a leadoff single into dead centerfield and was bunted over to second base by true freshman Scott Wingo in the ninth inning.
That set the stage for Reese Havens, who promptly drove a 2-2 pitch over the right field wall, which sent the Carolina fans into a frenzy and gave Carolina the 10-8 walkoff victory, propelling USC (37-19, 15-15) into the SEC Tournament.
"We had to do this twice, and I remember a year ago, about this same date, we had that dramatic come-from-behind win against Georgia," an emotionally stunned Ray Tanner said. "And today, what we think will be the last day (At Sarge Frye Field). And Sarge (Frye's) family here. It was tough."
"This place got loud real quick," Havens said. "It was exciting, man. Definitely something I won't ever forget."
Much to his surprise, the shortstop remembers every single moment after the decisive home run.
"People were going crazy, my teammates were going crazy, and it was just a great feeling for me," he said. "It was unbelievable."
It looked as if it was going to be another stressful day for the Gamecocks early on in the top of the first inning.
After the festivities had subsided and baseball had gotten underway, the Volunteers (27-29, 12-18) made it clear to Cooper and the Gamecocks that they were not going to go away lightly, despite their season being mathematically over.
With two outs and the bases clear, Shawn Griffin launched a solo home run over the left field wall to give the Vols the early one run advantage.
However, Carolina came out with a similar spark in the bottom half of the frame. After leadoff man Reese Havens walked to begin the inning, first baseman Justin Smoak lined a double just past the diving first baseman that rolled all the way to the corner of the right field wall, allowing Havens to score on the play.
A batter later, James Darnell hit what seemed to be the exact same pitch at the Tennessee first baseman, which also rolled to the wall. Smoak scored on the play to give the lead right back to Carolina at 2-1.
Two innings later, the Gamecocks tacked on another run by way of Harley Lail. After Smoak walked and Darnell singled, Lail hit a ball right at the Tennessee third baseman.
On the play, Cody Brown tried to tag out James Darnell at third but Darnell, showing nothing but 100 percent effort, dove in ahead of the tag, which allowed Smoak to score.
"(Tennessee starting pitcher Ty'Relle) Harris made some great pitches when he needed to," Tanner said. "I thought we could push some extra runs across. I knew we were going to need them."
However, Tennessee came right back at the Gamecocks in the top of the fifth inning. The thorn in Carolina's paw all weekend, Kentrail Davis, singled to start things off. Then, a routine ground ball to Darnell ended up in the Carolina dugout, putting runners on second and third for the Vols.
A single by Brown then brought both runners home, tying the game at three all. Cooper would rebound, however, by turning a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.
Carolina had numerous chances to break through on the scoreboard throughout the first five innings, but could never seem to capture the clutch base hit to truly break the game open. Through the first five frames, USC had left a staggering eight runners on base.
Carolina finally was able to capitalize in the bottom of the sixth inning. Tennessee's momentum was sucked up instantly when freshman Scott Wingo launched his first career triple to lead off the frame.
A batter later, Havens reached third base when the Tennessee right fielder couldn't handle the frozen rope that reached the wall, scoring Wingo in the process.
After intentionally walking Smoak to set up the double play, Darnell made the Tennessee Volunteers pay dearly when he launched his 18th home run of the year, keeping the UT right field stuck in his tracks and pushing USC's lead to 7-3.
The Volunteers weren't letting the fat lady sing just yet, however, as they battled back a frame later. Consecutive hit-by-pitches to start off the inning put Cooper in some early trouble. A batter later, Josh Liles lined a single to left field, cutting the Carolina lead to three at 7-4.
"I knew Tennessee was going to keep coming," Tanner said. "We played hard, we left some runners out there, but we just kept battling and thank goodness it came up for us. I know Sarge is watching over us."
That prompted a change, as Tanner brought in lefty Alex Farotto to keep Tennessee at bay.
The final line on Cooper was six strong innings while giving up nine hits, four runs, a walk and five strikeouts in 97 pitches.
The move to go to Farotto quickly payed off as Darnell showed his effort once again and he made a diving catch in foul ground to record the first out of the inning.
However, after issuing a walk, Tanner made a pitching change yet again, this time to the veteran closer Brandon Todd. It was evident that Tanner wasn't going to play around with his pitchers on this pivotal day.
However, Todd quickly plunked his first batter with the bases loaded on the first pitch, cutting the Carolina lead to 7-5. The senior then rebounded with a strikeout and a 6-3 groundout to end the inning.
An inning later, Carolina showed that they had clearly sustained their momentum as Brandon Todd struck out the side in the eighth, getting two batters looking and one swinging to put Carolina just three outs away from the SEC Tournament.
In the bottom of the frame, USC padded their lead, courtesy once again of James Darnell. After Merrifield and Smoak singled to begin the inning, Darnell lined a single to left field, scoring Merrifield in the process, and helped push USC's lead back to three.
It was the fifth RBI for Darnell on the afternoon, the sixth time this season that the junior had accomplished the feat of five or more in a game.
However, much to the dismay of Carolina fans, the game was far from over. Brandon Todd (3-1) gave up a leadoff single and a walk before Jeff Lockwood launched a game tying three-run homer to left field to tie the game at eight apiece.
"I knew we were going to win after they hit the home run," Darnell said. "I just had a feeling that this was the way it was going to end. It's the last day at the Sarge, and God was looking down on us."
And Darnell was right.
Lail led off with his single, which proved to be the winning run in the incredible ninth inning.
"Lail's had a hard luck season," Tanner said. "He was able to dump a ball in there, Wingo was able to move him up, and Reese got a pitch that he was able to hit real hard."
That's when Havens put the game in the books with his sixteenth, and most important, home run of the season.
USC will now meet SEC West Champion LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Hoover, Alabama. The Gamecocks were swept by the Tigers in Baton Rouge just a few weeks ago.
It will be the thirteenth consecutive appearance for the Gamecocks in Hoover, the longest current streak in the Southeastern Conference.
"I'm proud of these guys," Tanner said. "Obviously, we would have liked to have won a few more games and done better on the road, but I'm proud of these guys. They work hard and they play hard, and we were able to come up with a big win today."
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