Through the opening portion of its SEC schedule, South Carolina baseball made a habit of bouncing back, frequently losing the first games of series only to come back on Saturdays and Sundays to secure wins.
The last few weeks, though, those bounce-back performances have faded, and with them so have the Gamecocks’ hopes of hosting an NCAA tournament regional. That slide continued Saturday as No. 19 USC dug itself a huge hole early and couldn’t complete the comeback against No. 4 Mississippi State, losing 9-6.
The defeat ensures a third consecutive series loss for the Gamecocks (27-17, 11-12 SEC), who had won the previous four. All three of those series losses have come to opponents ranked in the top 10 of the RPI.
“When we play like we’re capable, I think we can compete with almost every team in the country, if not any team in the country. ... We’re close, but we need to get over that last little hump to compete against the best of the best,” coach Mark Kingston said.
Just like Friday’s 9-0 loss to the Bulldogs, the Gamecocks fell behind immediately Saturday — freshman starter Will Sanders’ very first pitch of the contest was ripped through the right side of the infield for a single, and his fourth pitch became a laser beam line drive that just eluded the grasp of second baseman Braylen Wimmer and got by center fielder Brady Allen for an RBI triple.
Later in that first inning, MSU cleanup hitter Luke Hancock obliterated Sanders’ 14th pitch of the game, taking a 3-1 fastball and depositing it beyond the right-field wall for a two-run home run.
“Coming out and scoring first, even if it’s just one run, is a huge momentum boost. And when you get down a couple runs to begin with, it is deflating,” senior outfielder Andrew Eyster said. “But at the same time, we have to do a better job of not letting that take some of our energy, because especially after the first few innings, two or three runs doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
Indeed, the Gamecocks quickly let the deficit balloon as the Bulldogs scored one run in each of the next three innings, taking advantage of a throwing error from sophomore catcher Colin Burgess on a double steal in the second inning, then getting solo home runs from sophomore catcher Logan Tanner and senior outfielder Rowdey Jordan.
“He just threw a lot of balls in the middle of the plate,” Kingston said of Sanders’ struggles — he finished with a line of 2 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 1 walk and 4 earned runs. “He didn’t appear to have very much deception at all today, and they were on everything he threw from the very first pitch of the game.”
Down 6-0 and having been held scoreless for 12 consecutive innings, the Gamecocks finally cracked the scoreboard in the fourth inning when Eyster lofted a solo home run that caught a friendly breeze to right.
Mississippi State quickly responded, using a combination of three walks and three singles in the fifth to plate three more runs and seemingly blow the game open.
Just when it seemed completely over, though, the Gamecocks found some late life when junior first baseman Wes Clarke crushed his 18th home run of the year, a two-run shot, in the sixth inning, followed by a three-run blast from Eyster in the seventh. Those long balls gave the beleaguered USC lineup a little life and forced Mississippi State to trot out its top bullpen arm, sophomore Landon Sims, for the eighth inning.
“It was clear that we were not going to lay down. At one point, obviously, it was 9-1, and we made them put their closer in the game. So that could be important as we move forward,” Kingston said.
On Saturday, however, Sims made sure his team came away with the win, throwing two scoreless innings and striking out three. All told, MSU’s pitchers had 16 strikeouts on the day, with starter Will Bednar fanning eight of the first nine batters he faced.
Still, the late surge marked some progress for a lineup that has labored mightily as of late. After getting shut out Friday, Kingston opted to hold his postgame meeting in the locker room instead of on the field, as he usually does. That was followed by a players-only meeting and another meeting Saturday morning between the team leaders and Kingston. Those discussions, coupled with the five unanswered runs, were encouraging.
“Some things were said that needed to be said,” Eyster said of that players-only meeting. “And ultimately I think it’ll end up being a positive thing. Obviously, we didn’t win today, but we came out and at least hit. We hit better than we have been. ... Compared to yesterday, it was a little better day.”
Next USC baseball game
Who: No. 19 South Carolina (27-17) vs No. 4 Mississippi State (35-10)
Where: Founders Park in Columbia
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Watch: SEC Network