Mighty Ebert has Popped Out

And the last shall be first. Vanderbilt came into the SEC Tournament seeded eighth, dead last. They beat #1 seed LSU 4-1 Wednesday, and then held on with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th and the Gamecocks' top hitter Nick Ebert at the plate to squeak out a 5-4 win and earned Friday off. Meanwhile, USC has to regroup and face LSU Friday night in an elimination game at 7:30.

The winner of the South CarolinaVanderbilt game Thursday night would be sitting pretty – they get all day Friday off while the loser faces an angry LSU squad on Friday night, who would be pitching their ace Louis Coleman.

South Carolina came into the game knowing that. A win would be a golden opportunity for them, and they blew that golden opportunity, Ray Tanner said so. The hottest team in the conference coming into the tournament, the Gamecocks had won eight straight before Thursday night's game, and 11 of 12 of their games played in May. They had made something happen when they needed to every time, and the table was set for one more late-inning rally.

In the top of the ninth Vandy loaded the bases with two outs. USC relief pitcher Mike Roth got two strikes on Jonathan White, but White stubbornly hung in, fouling off four balls and working up to a full count. Roth's next pitch was too high, and the winning run was walked in. "I tried to put him away with three sliders, he just kept battling," Roth said. "He had a good at-bat against me."

Nick Ebert, USC's home run and RBI leader came to the plate with the bases loaded with muppets in the bottom of the ninth, but Vanderbilt relief pitcher Chase Reid got Ebert to pop out on a shallow blooper towards second base, and then catcher Justin Dalles struck out to end the game, stranding Grover on third base.

"Nick's been great for us all year and you keep expecting him to come through, but you can't do it all the time." USC Coach Ray Tanner said. "We had some chances there at the end, and had the right guys at the plate. It just didn't work out for us.

Asked about last place Vanderbilt beating the league's #1 seed, and then beating his Gamecocks, Tanner didn't hesitate: "It says a lot about Vandy, but it also says a lot about the league we play in. It's the SEC. Anybody can beat anybody."

For the second night in a row, the Gamecocks played in the nightcap, and finished the game after 2 am on their Eastern Time zone body clocks. The handful of fans that stayed up until oh-dark 30 to watch it were treated to a classic game. The game went back and forth, with South Carolina taking an early 1-0 lead in the third inning, only to have the Commodores score two to take the lead in the top of the next inning. USC then scored another run to tie it back up in the bottom of the 4th.

It remained tied until Vandy's Aaron Westlake and Andrew Giobbi hit back to back homers off an otherwise stellar Sam Dyson in the top of the 6th. "The first pitch to Westlake, I thought was a good pitch," Tanner said. "The next one wasn't quite as good to Giobbi. They're two pretty good players there and they got pitches to hit."

Dyson struck out seven batters in seven innings of work. Michael Roth came out to pitch for USC in the top of the eighth. Freshman Sonny Gray had the game of his young career for Vandy, striking out 11 Gamecocks, four more than his previous high of seven in a game. He also lasted seven innings.

The Dores kept that lead until the bottom of the 8th, when USC scored two runs to again tie it up, and the Gamecocks had to feel good about their chances going into the bottom of the 9th and a chance to win.

"Quite honestly, I felt like we were going to win," Tanner said. "We've been winning a lot of games lately and I felt like even with a two-run deficit there, I felt like we'd get in position to win and we did."

Freshman left-handed pitcher Nolan Belcher will get the start Friday against LSU, and it is up to him to hold off the potent LSU offense and keep his team's tournament hopes alive. He will face LSU senior right-hander Louis Coleman, who defeated USC earlier this season. "It'd be nice if he gets us deep into the game," Tanner said of Belcher. "He's going to have to bring his ‘A' game."

If the Gamecocks are successful and beat LSU on Friday night, on Saturday they would play a Georgia team they swept last week at 2:30. The Bulldogs are also undefeated thus far in the tourney and get Friday off. If the Gamecocks beat Georgia, they would have to turn around and face them again at 9 pm Saturday night. Vandy will face the winner of the Arkansas - Florida elimination game Saturday morning. The winner of USC's bracket would face the Vandy / Arkansas / Florida winner for the tournament championship on Sunday.

The Gamecocks came in with two clear goals – to win the tournament and to win the right to host and NCAA Regional next weekend. Both goals are still possible, and just one more win in the tournament against the nation's #2 ranked team in LSU should put them in position to host, but they'll have to play much better than they did Thursday if they want to keep playing past Friday night. The Gamecocks are now 38-20. Vanderbilt improved to 33-24. The rest of the tournament games will be televised on Fox Sports Network (FSN).

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