Those gathered around the concourse at Founders Park at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday let out a collective sigh.
The only cheers emanating around South Carolina’s cavernous ballpark were those arising in the Charlotte dugout where the 49ers celebrated 7-hole-hitter Will Butcher’s obliterated grand slam.
In South Carolina’s final home game of the 2022 season, Charlotte (34-18, 16-11 C-USA) might have delivered the death knell for USC’s fleeting at-large NCAA tournament hopes as the Gamecocks (26-25, 12-15 SEC) fell 8-3.
South Carolina jumped out to a quick start via a trio of hot-swinging bats. Leadoff man Brandt Belk tripled in the bottom of the first inning before Kevin Madden’s sac fly brought him home.
A Josiah Sightler RBI single and a ripped double to the left field corner courtesy of Braylen Wimmer gifted the Gamecocks their second and third runs of the night as they jumped out to a 3-0 lead through four frames.
Boasting a bullpen that has been on life support since starters James Hicks and Julian Bosnic were ruled out for the year before the season was more than a month old, South Carolina turned to freshman Aidan Hunter to relieve largely effective starter Matthew Becker.
Hunter, who Kingston has said on multiple occasions this season has been forced into more action than he’s ready for, surrendered a pair of singles, a double and a two-run homer before being pulled for Parker Coyne.
Coyne followed Hunter’s erratic relief effort by walking three batters before watching Butcher clobber his 1-0 offering for the game-breaking grand slam.
South Carolina entered the final stretch of regular-season play clinging to an outside chance at a postseason berth. A midweek loss to USC-Upstate last week coupled with blowing a 9-0 lead May 7 that would’ve given Kingston’s squad a series win at Texas A&M made those NCAA chances increasingly bleak.
The loss to Charlotte on Tuesday, though, felt like the final nail in the Gamecocks’ 2022 coffin.
South Carolina will finish the season 7-5 in midweek contests, including a trio of losses to in-state foes Presbyterian, the Citadel and USC-Upstate. Even series wins over Vanderbilt and Texas are hard to mitigate those kinds of results.
Chances, long as they might be, do remain.
USC will head to Gainesville for a three-game set with Florida this weekend. A run in the SEC tournament, in theory, is also possible.
But on a night when South Carolina ought to have celebrated its seniors’ last home game and headed to Florida with a chance to play itself into the postseason, the Gamecocks look poised to start their offseason sooner than later.