Something had to give Wednesday night as slumping South Carolina and a crumbling Citadel team stumbled into each other inside a ballpark with alligator sausage and funnel cakes on the menu.
The Gamecocks left with more indigestion. The Bulldogs are at least temporarily pleased with a sloppy but immensely satisfying 10-8 victory before 6,500 fans at The Joe.
South Carolina, ranked No. 11 but vulnerable with some of the best players in the country injured, has lost four in a row - including to Charleston Southern at home Tuesday night. Gamecock baseball royalty is such that this weekend's series at Auburn is suddenly critical, even for a 28-9 team.
"It's a big series. It's a big test for us as a team," said Gamecocks senior designated hitter Brison Celek, a Bishop England High School graduate who hit his second college home run Wednesday night and singled. "It will show what we're made of."
The Citadel (15-23) was picked to finish second in the Southern Conference and now is trying to avoid the league basement. But the Bulldogs responded before a "home" crowd packed with Gamecock fans.
"For the first time in about a month, when we had a lead and somebody pressed us, we responded," head coach Fred Jordan said. "Hopefully, this will get this ballclub going, because I think we're better than our record indicates. Hopefully, we can finish strong."
A trying several days for USC reveals the slippery nature of a college baseball world run by pitchers. Lose a few top run producers and, even on the best teams, lesser players swinging metal bats legislated to work like wood bats often aren't able to respond.
Or, the next night, no one in a revamped middle infield is covering second base on a stolen base attempt and the center fielder loses a fly ball in the twilight sky (as Tanner English did while two Citadel runs scored).
Bright, Pankake, others
South Carolina is trying to stay in prime contention for a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament, the path to hosting Super Regional fun on the way to the College World Series. The Gamecocks are Omaha-ready when healthy, but with injuries are as fragile as almost any team requiring extra physical therapy.
South Carolina played with another patchwork lineup.
Connor Bright, the junior right fielder who was the Post and Courier's Lowcountry Player of the Year while playing at Wando High School, still had his right (throwing) elbow in a sling.
Shortstop Marcus Mooney suffered a concussion Sunday against Florida and is out at least through the Auburn series.
Third baseman Joey Pankake (hamstring) took batting practice but didn't play.
Max Schrock, typically the second baseman, missed the last four games with a virus but started against the Citadel at third base. He got two at-bats - both strikeouts - before coming out.
If the Gamecocks can just get all or most of these guys back .
"That would be nice," shortstop DC Arendas said, "but we can't use that as a crutch. Guys have been down for a couple weeks now. Guys who have stepped in and played are getting more and more comfortable. We competed more than we did (against Charleston Southern), but the Citadel is a good team and they beat us."
The Bulldogs should have such problems. No surprise that the Citadel's mostly young pitching staff has been inconsistent. But Bulldog bats have been one of the biggest disappointments in the 11-team SoCon.
With all but Joe Jackson back among the starting position players, the Citadel has fallen off in pressure statistics that add up quickly. Batting average with runners in scoring position: Down from .306 last season to .271.
"Clutch hits have been avoiding us for the last month," Jordan said. "But this game has a way of balancing out at the end of the year. "
It's too early for the Citadel to take the joy of Wednesday night and look ahead to the SoCon tournament set for May 20-25 in Charleston. But fresh memories of applying vintage Bulldog pressure to the opposition will pack nicely for the trip to Western Carolina this weekend.
"Western Carolina has a great club," Jordan said, "but so does South Carolina."
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