Pirates Prevail in High Drama Finish, 8-6

With their backs against the wall, the East Carolina Pirates used the long ball to go up 8-0 on South Carolina, and needed every one of them to hold off a furious Gamecock rally in the bottom of the 9th. USC scored four runs and brought the winning run to the plate but still came up short, and ECU prevailed 8-6 to force a one game shootout for the regional championship 6 pm Monday.

Through their first two games, South Carolina had cruised through the ECU Regional, using a home run loaded offense and strong pitching that kept the opposition mostly off the scoreboard. The Pirates did what Pirates do best, and stole the Gamecocks' formula Sunday night, putting up eight runs before allowing USC to score, but the Gamecocks' never-say-die attitude kept them in the game.

ECU pitcher Kevin Brandt did the rest, keeping the Gamecocks scoreless through six innings. USC Coach Ray Tanner said, "I really feel the key to the game was a great start by Kevin Brandt. He pitched a heck of a game. They played outstanding defense behind Brandt too."

For the first eight innings on Sunday, the story line was clear: Pirates boarded the Gamecock cruise ship, broke into the USC offensive locker and stole the blue prints for turning their opponents into cannon fodder using the long ball.

The Gamecocks couldn't get one out of the park, and the Pirates scored all of their eight runs off three home runs. But the Gamecocks stormed back in the 9th, and the players were adamant after the game that their heads were held high and they were ready for Monday night to finish what they started.

Senior Andrew Crisp said, "We're upbeat and have another game. We obviously would have loved to take this one but it's baseball. Tomorrow we're going out and play hard and play smart and do all the things we've done so far to get here."

South Carolina had danced with disaster from the mound all weekend without getting hurt, luring George Mason to strand nine base runners on Friday and only allowing three runs, then getting the East Carolina Pirates to strand twelve base runners and only allow two runs.

USC starting pitcher Nolan Belcher struggled from the beginning, allowing hits by three of the first four batters, including a three run homer by designated hitter Kyle Roller, who got the Pirates off to a strong start and a 3-0 lead. He gave up a solo home run to Dustin Harrington to lead off the ECU 4th. Ray Tanner came out and talked to his ace in the top of the 6th inning and left Belcher in facing a bases loaded jam. He paid for it when the next batter Brandon Henderson hit the ball deep over the left field fence into the ECU "jungle" for a grand slam.

Belcher's night was through, having given up eight runs on nine hits, the most hits Belcher had given up all season. He was replaced by Steven Neff, who got USC out of the inning.

Belcher was clearly down after the loss, saying, "I felt like I had my stuff working, but they made me pay for those two bad pitches and put up seven runs. It's going to be hard to come back from. I didn't keep them in the park and they made us pay for it."

Jackie Bradley, Jr., repeated his game 1 gymnastics when he stole a home run away from the Pirates that was over the wall to end the ECU half of the 2nd inning, but it was one of the few defensive highlights of the night, and ECU countered it when Devin Harris returned the Bradley favor by stealing a home run in right field from Adam Matthews to close out the fifth inning and keep the Gamecocks scoreless at that point.

The Gamecocks finally got on the board in the bottom of the 7th when Andrew Crisp hit a two run double to score Justin Dalles and Bradley and close the gap to 8-2.

In the bottom of the ninth, Bradley singled, and then Nick Ebert struck out swinging. Dalles continued his regional heroics and homered to left field to close the gap to 8-4. That chased ECU starting pitcher Kevin Brandt, who was brilliant on the night.

Pinch hitter Brady Thomas brought his sterling .150 batting average up to the plate and made Tanner look like a genius, hitting a two run double and pulling the Gamecocks within two, 8-6. Thomas was replaced at second by pinch runner Sam Dyson. Whit Merrifield popped out for the second out, and then it became obvious that Tanner had made an error when he had pulled an ailing DeAngelo Mack, and was forced to pinch hit Jeffery Jones. Jones, representing the winning run, strode to the plate but popped out, giving ECU the win and another day to live.

On Jones' pinch hitting, Tanner said, "Steven Neff was due up in that spot because I had lifted DeAngelo Mack, who had shin splints. I saw Mack hobble out there for the ninth inning and I lifted him. It was a mistake on my part. I looked at the line-up card and thought that if his spot came back up, the game would be tied at that point. I would love to have that one back."

Jay Brown will start for the Gamecocks in tomorrow's 6 pm matchup. The ECU starter has not been determined. "I think Jay Brown has positioned himself to have this start tomorrow," Tanner said of his fifth year senior. "Hopefully, he'll go out and have a great outing. I feel good about sending him out there. It's certainly not going to be easy for him. He's going to have to be really good tomorrow."

USC is now 40-22 on the season. ECU is 45-18.

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