Clutch hitting gives USC 4-2 SEC win

The Gamecock offense struck early and late in the SEC opener over Tennessee, with Whit Merrifield and Adrian Morales combining to score all 4 runs for South Carolina. Morales' 1st inning home run set the tone for the Gamecocks, but it was the pitching effort of Blake Cooper and the USC bullpen along with some timely hitting in the 8th that got it done, and moved Carolina to 1-0 in the SEC.

"We're just 1-0 and I'm happy to be there," said Coach Ray Tanner. "We had good pitching and we battled hard and we were able to win at home."

It all started with Gamecock pitcher Blake Cooper, who retired Tennessee quickly in the 1st, giving up just a walk in the opening frame. After Whit Merrifield led off the game for USC with a single, Adrian Morales sent his first pitch of SEC play into the left field seats for a quick 2-0 lead on UT and starting pitcher Bryan Morgado.

"Scouting report said he was a fastball guy, so I was not going to let him beat me with anything offspeed, I was going to sit on fastball, and that's what I sat on," said Morales in describing the big home run.

Morgado came into the game 2-1 with a 5.16 ERA, but settled into a groove after the 1st, as those were the only runs he would allow all night.

"He's a real good pitcher," said Jackie Bradley Jr. "We knew if we got into their bullpen we'd have an even better chance. (He) was just mixing it up, hitting his spots, very consistent, he was getting his curveball over, getting his fastballs in for strikes, (and) he's a good pitcher, a real good pitcher."

Not to be outdone on the night was USC starter Blake Cooper. The senior out of Neeses, SC, made the most of his start as he effectively shut down the Vols for 5 innings. In the top of the 6th, Tennessee threatened as they loaded the bases with nobody out, but Cooper got Cody Stubbs to ground into the 1-2-3 double play, and finally ended the inning forcing a flyout to left field.

The trouble wasn't over for Cooper, who in the 7th gave up a walk and a double to give Tennessee runners on 2nd and 3rd with just 1 down. Pinch hitter Charley Thurber then hit a sharp grounder to first, where it was too hot to handle for Nick Ebert, and both runs scored to tie the game.

The night ended there for Cooper, but he was very effective overall, giving up just 1 earned run on 4 hits in 6-plus innings of work.

"Cooper pitched his rear end off to begin with," claimed Tanner. "He really did, he pitched his heart out. We had a couple of misplays behind him that made it difficult. He got behind a little bit, I don't think he tired. Mata got his guy, Roth went in and did a nice job, and then Carter (and) it's encouraging. We have some confidence in those guys and they did a nice job for us tonight."

The last two batters of the 7th inning were retired by Jose Mata, beginning a streak of 8 straight retired to end the game for the South Carolina bullpen.

"Coming into this year I knew we had a pretty deep bullpen and some guys are starting to show up for us," said Cooper. "Luckily I've been good so far this year, (and) if I continue to throw strikes I'll be fine, and if the bullpen continues to throw strikes we'll be fine. I believe the key to bullpen success is coming in and immediately throwing strikes, and we've been able to do that, and we've got a chance to win if we throw strikes."

When Morgado finally came out of the game in the bottom of the 8th, it was the Gamecocks turn to test the Tennessee bullpen. And they did just that, scoring 2 in the bottom of the inning for what proved to be the winning margin.

Merrifield and Morales once again led off the inning with two singles off of UT reliever Will Locante. Jackie Bradley Jr. picked up what proved to be the game winning RBI, hitting a single up the middle to score Merrifield. Next up, Kyle Enders skied a pitch to left field, and Morales slid in just ahead of the throw to give Enders a sacrifice fly and a RBI.

"Yeah it was a pretty big hit, I'm glad our team was able to get on base, power back, right man right spot, I was looking for a fastball, he gave it to me and I hit it straight up the middle," said Bradley Jr. after the game.

Bradley's game winning hit was all the more impressive since he had just had stitches removed from his hand prior to the game this afternoon. The 4-2 lead held up in the end, with Ethan Carter finishing out the game, and ending it with a strikeout of Matt Duffy to end the game.

Even with the clutch hitting, the Gamecocks could not have gotten it done without their bullpen, which was unyielding in facing its first SEC offense of the year. After Mata, it was Michael Roth and Carter that combined to pitch the final 2 innings, giving up no hits or runs, and striking out 4.

Carter picked up the win for USC, while Locante took the loss for the Vols. In the decisive 8th inning, Locante gave up a total of 3 hits and 2 earned runs, while walking 1 batter.

The Gamecocks and Vols will resume the series with game 2 tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. On the mound for USC will be Sam Dyson, and opposing him will be Aaron Tullo for the Vols.

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