The Saga Continues - SC Walkoff Homer Wins It

Carolina had to have a great performance on the mound to survive the elimination game in the NCAA Regional. They got one from Blake Cooper, who notched a new career high strikeouts with nine, but USC's bullpen in the top of the ninth allowed a gutsy James Madison team to tie the game at 5-5. Reese Havens ended the drama with a two run walk-off homer to keep the Gamecock post-season dreams alive.

Raleigh NC: South Carolina skipper Ray Tanner had to make a decision with the game on the line. He had the winning run on first base with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth. Should he tell Reese Havens to bunt? He had his star shortstop square as if to bunt on the first pitch to test the defense. "I made the decision to cut him loose and not bunt. I wrestled his entire at bat whether he should have bunted or not. But lo and behold, he was able to get a hold of one. I just tried to take that out of his mind so he could just focus on getting a pitch to hit."

And he did. Just like two weeks ago against Tennessee, the junior from Sullivan's Island hit a two run shot to end the game. The last time his shot put his team into the SEC tournament, this time it kept his team alive in the NCAA tournament.

Tanner dismissed discussion of his team allowing James Madison back in the game. "It's the way it's supposed to be. It's Regional time of the year, and you're going to have to scrap and claw and fight and do your best to advance. This wasn't any different than I expected. We're getting ready to go back and pack the house again and strap it on. This is what it's all about. This is why guys put the uniform on. The Wolfpack and the Gamecocks, this is why you do it. This is the environment their players and our players want to be in. Let's go out and have some fun tonight."

South Carolina fans who braved the heat in Raleigh for the NCAA Regional elimination game had to be salivating when they saw that James Madison's starting pitcher Alex Valadja had a 13.78 ERA. Justin Smoak feasted on Valadja's offerings, hitting home runs his first two at bats against the left-hander.

South Carolina's all-time home run king hit his 61st and 62nd career homers, and his 22nd and 23rd of this season, surpassing last season's high mark of 22 and tying him for the second on the single-season home run list at Carolina. The second blast moved Smoak up to fourth place on the all-time SEC home run list as well, where he is stalking Rafael Palmeiro's 67 career bombs. And last but not least, he also now has 246 career hits. That moves him past Hank Small for seventh place on USC's all-time list for that statistic on the USC career list. It also marked the 22nd straight game that a USC player had hit a home run.

But the Dukes' starting pitcher did not let the Smoak bombs faze him. Smoak had two RBIs in the first and one in the third, sandwiching another run on a sacrifice fly by Scott Wingo. Valadja continued battling and lasted five and a third innings, and the Dukes sent the Gamecocks back to the dugout without scoring in the middle three innings.

Tanner was impressed with the left-hander's efforts. "He looked like a guy who was on a mission to me. Even though Smoak hit a couple balls, he looked like he was in a role that he hadn't been in a lot, and wanted to prove that he could pitch, and he battled his rear end off. He made some pretty good pitches. We tried to get him in a couple of situations to have a big inning, but he kept holding us off. He did a heck of a job."

James Madison made the middle innings interesting when they scored three runs in the top of the fourth and held Carolina scoreless for the middle three innings. The Gamecocks ended their scoring drought when Whit Merrifield singled past a diving shortstop to center and then advanced to second on the throw to home plate. Scott Wingo slid home milliseconds before the throw to home, increasing the USC lead to 5-3. Darnell walked to load the bases for senior Phil Disher, but he hit a line drive to the third baseman who took two steps to step on the bag and end the inning for Carolina.

Mike Cisco only threw 11 pitches and allowed the game tying runs to score, but in the funny game of baseball he is the winning pitcher of record. After JMU tied the game in the top of the ninth, Scott Wingo got a base hit to start the bottom of the inning before Havens sent a 3-2 pitch sailing deep over the right field fence to finish the job.

USC gets a very short break from the heat before they return to face the host Wolfpack at 6 pm tonight. The team immediately after the game returned to their hotel rooms. Will Atwood is expected to be the starter against North Carolina State.

The win against James Madison gives South Carolina their ninth consecutive season with 40 or more wins, the only SEC school to accomplish the feat from 2000-08.

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