COLUMBIA -- Throw one pitch a few inches too far over the plate, wait one millisecond too long before deciding to swing, and a baseball team as talented as Florida will make you pay.
South Carolina was by no means awful in Saturday's 5-4 loss to the top-ranked Gators. The eighth-ranked Gamecocks fell behind 3-0 after three innings, but tied the game in the fifth. Starting pitcher Colby Holmes didn't make it to the fourth inning, but USC got 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief work from Tyler Webb against some of college baseball's best hitters.
Yet it was mistakes of inches and milliseconds in the final two innings that resulted in USC losing the series 2-1 and falling to 17-7, 1-5 in Southeastern Conference play. USC's only other 1-5 starts: 1992, its first season in the SEC, and 2003, when it made it to the College World Series. USC must win Friday's series opener at Vanderbilt to avoid its first-ever 1-6 start.
USC has eight SEC series remaining before the regular season ends May 19, so there is clearly a lot of season left. But at least for Saturday, the Gamecocks' disappointment about their missed opportunities late in the game made it feel like last season's World Series victory over Florida, for USC's second straight national championship, was a distant memory.
"You don't feel terrible," said coach Ray Tanner. "I don't feel like we didn't have a chance or we're just not good enough. I don't feel any of those emotions. Are we as good as (Florida) on paper? No. But we had some opportunities here to win this series."
A prime chance came in the eighth, with the game tied at three. USC had runners on second and third with one out. Then pinch-hitter and No. 1 starting pitcher Michael Roth struck out. A more talented hitter, freshman catcher Grayson Greiner, followed Roth and found himself in a 1-2 count against Austin Maddox, one of the nation's best relievers. Maddox caught him staring at a curveball.
"Looked like it was a hittable pitch in the zone," Tanner said. "But Grayson froze up. The guy's a freshman facing a guy that's been around the block a few times."
So, too, has USC junior Matt Price, an elite closer last season who returned to that role in Thursday's series opener after beginning the season as a starter. Price replaced Webb in the seventh and responded to Greiner's strikeout by getting the first two outs of the ninth. Then the wheels fell off: walk, hit by pitch and a two-run triple by lead-off hitter Nolan Fontana.
Toughest of all for the Gamecocks, they got a ninth-inning home run from LB Dantzler, making Price plunking No. 9 hitter Cody Dent -- after cornering him in an 0-2 count -- all the more costly. Dent worked the count full, then happily felt the sting of Price's fastball in his back.
"It was supposed to be a fastball in, and I kind of held onto it too long and got out front," Price said.
Price's pitch that resulted in Fontana's two-run triple just missed, too -- a tad over the middle, the same issue Holmes encountered in the first three innings, especially with the two solo homers he allowed in the third.
But the reality remains: Price came within one out of a superb weekend, after he closed USC's 9-3 win on Thursday. The Gamecocks mustered just five hits Saturday, but as first baseman Christian Walker pondered the series on a whole, he said USC is "showing glimpses" of success. Still, he knows as well as anyone that glimpses alone won't get the Gamecocks back to the College World Series.
"We've got a pretty good team," Tanner said. "It hasn't been reflected the last couple of weeks, but we've got to keep moving forward."