COLUMBIA — Thursday night’s Florida-South Carolina baseball series opener featured six intensely competitive innings and an ace-versus-ace pitching matchup fitting of this rivalry.
Friday’s follow-up was an absolute dud for the Gamecocks, as the top-ranked Gators cruised to an 8-2 victory, setting up today’s decisive 1 p.m. game.
Friday wasn’t quite the must-win situation — if that can be the case in March — as Thursday’s game was, since the Gamecocks had lost four of their previous five contests.
If eighth-ranked USC couldn’t beat Florida with Michael Roth starting Thursday, you had to wonder if the Gamecocks were setting themselves up for their second consecutive sweep to begin Southeastern Conference play. But they pulled away in the seventh and eighth innings and won 9-3. It was USC’s sixth win in its past seven meetings with Florida, and despite Friday’s result, the Gamecocks remain confident.
“We absolutely intend to get this series,” said first baseman Christian Walker. “They’re a good team. They’re not going to let us push them around.”
Friday’s game wasn’t as competitive for nearly as long as Thursday’s. After a one hour, 19 minute weather delay, Florida tagged USC starter Forrest Koumas for five runs in the first inning, including a three-run home run followed by a solo shot. Florida batted around in the first.
Koumas, a sophomore, was removed with no outs in the second and was credited with six earned runs — the worst outing of his career. He faced 12 batters, walked five and allowed four hits.
“You’ve got to have a short memory as a pitcher,” Koumas said. “I’m ready to get back out there and kind of erase that one out of my head.”
Koumas was making his first start of the season. Last season, he made 19 appearances, including 12 starts. He moved into the bullpen this season, to allow closer Matt Price to become a starter in his junior year, for the first time in his career.
Those plans changed Thursday, when USC coach Ray Tanner, knowing he had to win, brought Price out of the bullpen to pitch the final 21/3 innings. Price’s return to the closing role forced Koumas to start in Price’s usual No. 2 spot Friday. (Colby Holmes will pitch in his regular No. 3 starter spot today, opposed by Jonathon Crawford.)
Tanner thought Koumas was mentally prepared to start, and said Koumas appeared to have “pretty good stuff” in his lone inning, despite the results. Koumas should get used to starting, because Tanner said he is leaning toward keeping Price in the bullpen. Whatever decision he makes, Tanner said he wants to stick to it.
“We’ll talk about it a little bit more,” Tanner said. “My thought is that he’ll probably stay in the bullpen at this point.”
Tanner didn’t bother having an encouraging conversation with Koumas after he left the game, because he said Koumas is a tested pitcher, having started the first game of last year’s two-game College World Series finals sweep over Florida.
“I don’t think he needs that conversation,” Tanner said.
USC’s fans, meanwhile, tried to encourage Koumas with applause as he left the game in the second, since this was, after all, just one start, albeit a disastrous one. But in the end, the game stood in stark contrast to the previous night’s series opener.
On Thursday, everybody stuck around until the finish, roaring as Price closed out Florida, just as he did in the decisive game of last year’s World Series. On Friday, after rain came and went in the late innings, just a few hundred fans remained for the final out. Not that Tanner or any of his players expected this series to be completely celebratory.
“They were No. 1 coming in here, so there’s a reason for that,” Tanner said of Florida. “They can do everything extremely well.”