The Citadel winning streak dies in Columbia

For the second straight night, the South Carolina Gamecocks (45-15) found themselves facing a deficit against an underdog opponent, and for the second straight night they responded. This time, it was a five run seventh inning rally that eventually sent them to a 9-4 victory over the Citadel (43-21) and all-star starter Asher Wojiechowski, snapping a 13 game Bulldog winning streak in the process.

Tasked with outdueling yet another ace pitcher, Blake Cooper responded and then some, striking out twelve Bulldogs to allow USC to stay in the game and secure a 9-4 win. The win allowed South Carolina to move within one victory of securing a trip to the Super Regional round of the NCAA tournament.

"He likes to pitch," said Coach Ray Tanner in describing his ace. "He's a four pitch guy, and people know that so they have to respect him. And it makes it difficult to bunch a lot of hits against him. You've got to be impressed with what he's done."

As he has done all year, Cooper faced the ace of the other team as well, and Tanner said his response to those big situations all year is part of what makes his senior pitcher so special.

"He's the underdog," added Tanner. "He's pitched against the big guys, the guys that supposedly have the great futures, and he's the guy that hopes to get drafted somewhere and get a chance to play pro ball, and he's beaten a lot of those guys. It says a lot about who he is."

After falling behind 5-1 in the last night's game against Bucknell, all the Gamecocks did was respond with a five run eighth inning rally to send the Bison to the loser's bracket and themselves to a huge matchup with the in-state Bulldogs.

Tonight, a strong performance by Cooper was nearly turned into a sour defeat, as a big error allowed the Citadel to take control of the game and a 4-2 lead. But it was the USC offense that roared back to life once again, this time with five runs in the seventh and seven over the course of the last three innings to defeat their rivals from Charleston, 9-4.

With eighteen runs over two games, USC appears to have turned the corner from the offensive struggles that plagued them over the course of the last two weeks.

"When we got back from Hoover I pushed a little bit and I challenged them," noted Tanner. "You guys have got to make it happen; we've just got to fight. Tonight we played from behind after the home run but we battled early on. We had some pretty good at-bats. It's baseball, and we've been able to get some hits the last two days."

In the bottom of the third, a past ball on a strikeout of Matt Simonelli eventually led to the first Citadel run, cutting into the 2-0 lead USC had established on the strength of Kyle Enders two-run second inning blast off Wojciechowski, just his second of the year.

Déjà vu struck again in the fourth, as the Citadel put together a two out rally that began with a Kyle Enders throwing error on another strikeout, allowing Brad Felder to reach.

Simonelli followed that up with a single before second baseman Bryan Altman blasted his fourteenth home run of the season to put the Citadel up 4-2 and silence the stunned Carolina Stadium crowd.

The margin was made all the more stunning by the fact that Cooper set his career high with his eleventh strikeout in the fifth, and had not given up any earned runs to that point. Nor did he give up any for the game, as all four came across unearned.

Staring down a 6'4'' ace with a 90-plus mile-per-hour fastball, Carolina still didn't blink, holding tight through the sixth before breaking through with numerous clutch hits to knock "Wojo" out of the game and send him to just his third loss of the year.

"I felt he was very composed," said Citadel head coach Fred Jordan. "I thought he was in good shape. He competed extremely well. South Carolina had three extremely competitive at bats with the game on the line. They did a good job."

Gamecock fans could breathe a slight sigh of relief as the USC bats finally woke up and tagged the Citadel for five runs on six hits in the seventh. Bobby Haney led off with a single before Scott Wingo followed with a bunt hit of his own. After a balk call moved the runners to second and third with one down, pinch hitter Evan Marzilli delivered with a two-RBI double, tying the game at four.

Marzilli would come around to score on a wild pitch as Wojciechowski airmailed a curveball over the catcher, and Adrian Morales and Christian walker each had RBI doubles to complete the scoring and give Carolina a 7-4 lead.

By that point it was lights out for Wojciechowski, as he departed after pitching six and two-thirds innings, giving up a career high seven earned runs on nine hits. Like Cooper, he was sharp with the strikeout, getting eleven Gamecocks to just one walk.

"There's a little sense of pride there, he came in projected as a first rounder," said Morales. "We were able to run up his pitch count and get some key base hits, score about seven runs off him, so it was big for us."

After allowing the first two hitters of the eighth inning to reach, Cooper departed to thunderous applause from the home crowd, and handed the game to Matt Price.

Price would give up a single to load the bases with one out before responding with perhaps the biggest pitch of the night, getting David Greene to come right back to the mound and start a 1-2-3 double play.

It was all Carolina would need, but they would add two in the ninth on a huge home run off the bat of Adrian Morales, who most certainly moved himself into contention for Regional MVP honors with another strong performance.

Despite struggling mightily in the SEC tournament, Morales has come up big in the first two games back in Columbia, going 6-9 at the plate with two home runs and six runs batted in.

With the big pitching and power hitting of USC too much for the Southern Conference Champions to overcome, they will now test their luck with the ACC, playing Virginia Tech in an elimination game tomorrow afternoon.

The winner of that matchup will face Carolina tomorrow night, and must beat them both Sunday and Monday to advance.

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