Clash of the SEC Titans Game 1 – UF 3, SC 2

The game was everything it was made out to be – a clash between two of college baseball's best teams, vying for the SEC Championship and a Top 8 seed in the national playoffs. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, they left the bases loaded twice and fell one run short in a 3-2 Florida victory in the first of the three game series. Blake Cooper suffered his first loss of the season.

The pageantry of college baseball at its finest was on display Thursday night, as a passionate crowd of 8,188 were on hand to watch the home-standing #6 Gamecocks face the #4 Florida Gators in the first of a three game series that would determine the 2010 SEC champions. It was all set up like a perfect movie script, and as the game began, the only question was whose "Field of Dreams" would Carolina Stadium turn out to be this night.

History was on the side of the Gamecocks, who not only led the overall series 35-26, but had won eight of the last ten series between the two teams, including six straight series losses in Columbia, and nine of the last ten times the two teams had met in Columbia. It was the Gators first visit to Carolina Stadium.

But for the first time this season in an SEC series, this South Carolina team lost the opening night game, and will enter game two with their backs against the wall in their quest to win the SEC title.

The 3-2 victory by the Gators gives them a one game lead over the Gamecocks. Whoever comes out of the three game series with two wins will win the SEC title outright, the SEC East title, and the #1 seed in next week's SEC tournament. The winner also will likely secure one of the coveted top eight seeds in the NCAA tournament the following week. Florida improves to 39-12 on the season and 21-7 in SEC play, while South Carolina drops to 42-12 and 20-8 in SEC play. Florida relief pitcher Jeff Barfield picked up the win, while USC starter Blake Cooper was stuck with his first loss of the season.

USC coach Ray Tanner said, "I don't feel real good right now, but tomorrow's a new day." The veteran coach was stoic despite the loss, calling it a great college baseball game in which both teams played well. Though acknowledging that being a game down with two left to play isn't ideal, he said he likes still having a chance to win the title.

First blood went to Florida, as the Gators took a 2-0 lead in the top of the third. First, a solo home run by Tyler Thompson gave them a 1-0 lead. Daniel Piggott hit a double, and then was brought home for the 2-0 lead by Preston Tucker's single RBI.

In the bottom of the third, Whit Merrifield played a two out full count into a walk, and then advanced to second on a wild pitch to Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley then stared down pitcher Alex Panteliodis for a walk of his own, bringing up Christian Walker, who loaded the bases with an infield hit. The Carolina crowd was in full throat as Parker Bangs came to bat, only to quiet quickly when Bangs popped out to end the inning.

Florida added another run in the top of the fourth, when Josh Adam's sacrifice RBI scored Matt den Dekker. The Gamecocks finally got on the board in the bottom of the fourth, when Adam Matthews scored off a Bobby Haney single, but the Gamecocks left the bases loaded after the one run for the second time in the game. 3-1 Florida after four.

Cooper didn't blame the offense, despite their leaving the bases loaded in the third and fourth innings. "I can't put it on the team," he said. "I didn't get it done today, but we'll come out ready tomorrow."

The Gators came away empty in the top of the fifth, and Jeffrey Jones pulled the Gamecocks within one with a solo home run in the bottom of the inning. Neither team scored in the sixth, leaving it 3-2 Florida after six.

Blake Cooper gave way after 101 pitches in the top of the 7th for Michael Roth, who made quick work of the Gators in that inning. Steven Rodriquez came on to pitch for Florida in the bottom of the 7th after Merrifield singled to start the inning. Bradley struck out swinging, and then Merrifield was gunned down trying to steal second. Walker was thrown out at first to end the inning, leaving the score still 3-2.

Kevin Chapman came on in the bottom of the 8th to pitch for the Gators. With two out, Matthews coaxed a walk out of Chapman, but Kyle Enders hit the ball weakly into the infield, where Matthews was Gator bait for the third out at second base.

The Gamecock bullpen did their job, keeping the Gators scoreless in the top of the ninth, setting up the home team for a come from behind win, but it was not to be this night. Nick Ebert came on for the first time in the game to start the inning, but after working a full count, popped out. Scott Wingo struck out looking, putting the Gamecocks down to their final out of the game. Leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield got two strikes on two foul balls, and then hit one out but foul over the right field line, before popping out right in front of the Gamecock dugout.

Friday's game will also begin at 7 pm.

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