Auburn uses big third inning to earn 6-4 win

The three-game series between South Carolina and Auburn is all even at one win apiece, as the Tigers pulled out a big 6-4 win over the Gamecocks on Saturday afternoon. USC starter Nolan Belcher lasted seven-plus innings, but a five-run third by Auburn proved to be the difference in the game, as Casey McElroy's three-run homer provided the separation needed for the win.

On Friday, the South Carolina baseball team got a complete game outing from Sam Dyson as they picked up a win over Auburn. USC starter Nolan Belcher tried his best to mimic that performance, but came up about one inning short.

Auburn used a big third inning effort against Belcher to score five runs, as they staved off a Gamecock rally to even up the three-game series at one win each, with a 6-4 win.

"We kept fighting back. Never were quite able to come up with the big hit or the home run we were looking for. Give credit to Auburn and their bullpen, they held us at bay," USC coach Ray Tanner said.

The Tigers (25-14, 8-9 SEC) notched leadoff singles in each of the first three innings, but the leadoff hit by Justin Hargett in the third proved to be the biggest, as he took second base on an errant throw by USC third baseman Andrew Crisp. Back-to-back singles scored the first run for Auburn, and they took a 2-0 on an RBI ground out to first by Hunter Morris.

A walk to Brian Fletcher kept the inning alive and put two runners on the base pads. That's when shortstop Casey McElroy worked Belcher to a full count before lifting a ball into the left field bullpen for a three-run shot that gave the Tigers a 5-0 lead.

"I walked a few guys, gave them an opportunity to put guys on base. You can't give that team any chance like that," Belcher said. "I'm proud of how I came back after that five-run inning and kind of battled, but I can't let a team get five runs in one inning. That's not going to do it."

Ben Jones looked like he would have another Auburn home run in the fifth as he hit a ball high and deep to center. The ball probably would've cleared the fence had it not been for the defensive work of Merrifield, who reached up and pulled it back into play for the second out of the inning. But the Tigers tacked on an insurance run in the next at-bat with a Morris solo home run to right to make it 6-2.

"It felt pretty good to finally get one. Nolan was struggling a little bit that one inning and to take one back for him was a good feeling," Merrifield said of his grab over the wall.

USC (25-14, 8-9 SEC) began their effort to chip away at the lead in the fifth inning, as Bobby Haney started things off with a single. Whit Merrifield put two on with a bunt single of his own, and runners stood at the corners on a fielder's choice ground out by DeAngelo Mack. Nick Ebert drew his third consecutive walk of the afternoon to load the bases, as Jackie Bradley, Jr., stepped in. His two-out single plated two runs, as Carolina cut the deficit to 6-2.

The Gamecocks looked to have some momentum back on their side in the seventh as Merrifield and Mack reached on back-to-back fielding errors. But Ebert lined a ball right at the third baseman for the snare and he tossed to first to pick off Mack and end the inning. The base running blunders for USC have been a growing issue, as they were picked off on that play and got caught stealing once tonight.

"It was just a couple of mental mistakes today. You can't give them more than they deserve," Merrifield said.

Carolina got back into the game with a leadoff solo home run from Bradley in the eighth, followed by back-to-back two-out singles and a walk that loaded the bases. Sitting on a 3-1 count, Merrifield watched strike two to make it a full count, but was issued a walk on the next pitch, to make it 6-4 and keep the bags full. Mack followed up with a ground out to second as the threat was ended.

"I wish I had that 3-1 pitch back. That was the first fastball I had seen and it was right down the middle and in. If I could have that back, I'd hopefully hit it in the gap," Merrifield said. "D-Mack's been our most clutch hitter all year; he just rolled over a ball today, and that's going to happen."

Bradley reached first base in the bottom of the ninth after being hit by a pitch; but the Gamecocks failed to move him over, as a strikeout, a fly ball, and a ground out ended the game.

After moving back to .500 in league play yesterday, the Gamecocks now find themselves in need of a win in tomorrow's rubber match to stay at the even level in conference play. That task is one Merrifield believes the team is ready to take head on.

"It's definitely a little bit frustrating. Tomorrow's a must-win game. There's no sugar coating about it. We've got to come out and win tomorrow," Merrifield said. "(Blake) Cooper's going to give us a strong start and we're going to have more than four hits through seven innings tomorrow, I guarantee that."

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