COLUMBIA — Joey Pankake chugged toward home plate, and though he didn’t know it at the time, he was going to beat the throw from left field fairly easily and South Carolina was going to win for the second time on probably its most important day of the season.
Pankake, of course, could not have foreseen this as his legs churned and his arms pumped and he drove headfirst into home plate. His helmet popped off in a cloud of dust, Pankake popped up into a crowd of celebratory teammates, and at the end of a long day, the Gamecocks’ aspirations for this season of change were very much alive.
Pankake scoring in the 11th inning Saturday, on Brison Celek’s single to left field, gave USC a 7-6 win over Kentucky in the second game of a resilient doubleheader. In Game 2, USC led 5-1 after three innings, trailed 6-5 in the middle of the seventh and forced extra innings with a run in the eighth. In Game 1, USC won 5-2 after trailing 2-0 in the middle of the sixth.
Regardless of what happens in today’s 1:30 p.m. series finale, this was a productive weekend for USC (30-10, 10-7 Southeastern Conference). Coming off being swept at Florida, the Gamecocks needed wins, since matchups with No. 3 LSU and No. 2 Vanderbilt loomed the next two weekends.
Saturday’s wins by no means guarantee a fourth straight trip to the College World Series. A middle reliever besides Adam Westmoreland almost certainly needs to contribute for that to happen. But Saturday showcased the pieces, and the fight, required for USC to make another serious run at Omaha.
“That was 20 innings of very important baseball for us,” said first-year USC coach Chad Holbrook.
The Gamecocks began the second half of their SEC schedule Saturday with things returning to normal, as they’ve come to know it — two dramatic wins, like so many over the previous three seasons, and encouraging signs from two rehabilitated pitchers who USC desperately needs.
But after ace Jordan Montgomery and closer Tyler Webb threw their final pitches — and proved their elbows seem just fine — two guys who haven’t shined in Omaha won Game 2 with a catch and swing that, if USC is playing two months from now, will be landmark moments of this year.
With two outs in the top of the 11th and a runner on first, Kentucky’s A.J. Reed ripped Webb’s pitch to right field. Reed had already put Kentucky up 6-5 with a three-run home run. As this ball carried toward the fence, Holbrook thought he hadn’t positioned sophomore right fielder Connor Bright deep enough. Holbrook knows these are the small decisions that can swing a season.
Second baseman Max Schrock had a different perspective, as he turned around. He saw that Bright, a Wando High graduate who hadn’t played outfield until this season, got an auspicious jump on the ball. “Man, he might catch that ball,” Schrock thought. Bright sprinted toward the fence, nabbed the ball on the warning track and let his coach exhale.
Two years before Bright got to USC, Brison Celek made the same trip, from Bishop England High. In his first two seasons, he played nine games, then redshirted. He got in 29 games last year. A broad-shouldered power hitter – or at least he thought so – Celek had a .197 batting average and no homers in 66 at-bats before this season, when he has one. He rarely played because he focused too much on pulling the ball, so his swing got long and he struck out frequently. In Saturday’s two games, he struck out five times in his first nine at-bats.
But he learned to shorten his swing, and has found a home as USC’s designated hitter. Saturday’s second game was his 10th start in the past 11, after getting just three previous starts this year. Even with Saturday’s five strikeouts, he was hitting .292 when he walked to the plate in the 11th, with Kyle Martin on first after a single and Pankake on second.
And on a 3-1 count, Celek, once such a greedy swinger, hit not a soaring homer to win the game, not even a double into the gap, but a bouncer between shortstop and third base.
“I’ve never been as happy to hit a ground ball in the six hole in my life,” he said.
This is what Holbrook had to see Saturday, and the immediate aftermath brought what he wanted to hear – that Montgomery and Webb had no unusual elbow pain after working Game 2. Montgomery allowed two runs and struck out seven in 5 2/3 innings, his third start back from a bone stress reaction, and his first extended outing. Webb hadn’t pitched in two weeks because of a muscle strain, but showed no ill effects while throwing three scoreless innings, with one hit.
Before Saturday, Holbrook’s first season had been pockmarked with frustrating changes: myriad injuries, and USC being swept twice for just the fifth time since it joined the SEC in 1992. But at least for a day, as Montgomery talked about taking his usual post-home start jog on a treadmill at Carolina Stadium, everything felt normal again.