FAIR BY INCHES: Gene Cone's triple lifts No. 11 Gamecocks to series-opening win over No. 8 Alabama
COLUMBIA - Gene Cone admitted he held his breath sprinting down the first-base path.
South Carolina's freshman outfielder had a perfect view of the play unfolding in right field. His hit dropped toward the foul line just as he neared first base. Alabama junior Ben Moore dove for what could've been the inning-ending out.
Instead, the baseball bounced off Moore's glove. By inches, it was fair.
When the Gamecocks have struggled this season, they've talked about failing to come up with opportunistic hits in clutch moments. On Friday night, that wasn't a problem. Cone's two-out, three-RBI triple broke open No. 11 South Carolina's series opener against No. 8 Alabama in the fourth inning. It was the crucial hit in a 9-3 win before a sellout crowd of 8,242 at Carolina Stadium.
"It looked fair to me," Cone said. "But it was tough to kind of judge."
It was tough for everybody to judge, including the man whose name is written all around Carolina Stadium.
Up in the press box, South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner watched Cone's triple repeatedly in the TV room. The Gamecocks former baseball coach took his time before making a decision, which he relayed to successor Chad Holbrook over the phone.
Yes, Tanner told Holbrook, the baseball landed in fair territory.
"When the Godfather says the ball was fair, it was fair," Holbrook said. "He just told me it was really close, but he said one of our television reviews had a good angle on it. He said it was clearly fair.
"Sometimes, you've got to have a break to beat a good team, and we got a break tonight. We made the most of it."
South Carolina's break benefited starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery most.
With a string of tight games to open SEC series, it's been weeks since the junior lefty has pitched with a comfortable lead. Montgomery had a shaky start against Alabama - allowing two runs in the first three innings - but recovered to get the win. He allowed eight hits with eight strikeouts and two walks in 61/3 innings, improving to 6-3 on the season.
It was no coincidence Montgomery didn't allow a run after Cone's triple.
"That definitely took a little pressure off my shoulders," Montgomery said. "I knew, especially after that big inning, I had to go out there and put a zero up. Usually, the half inning after a big inning is probably one of the most important parts of the game. If you can keep that momentum, it kind of shows them that they're not going to score."
Cone's triple also lifted pressure off South Carolina's lineup, which has been inconsistent in recent weeks.
Catcher Grayson Greiner finished 3-for-4 from the plate with two RBIs, including a solo home run that sparked a three-run eighth inning. Center fielder Tanner English was 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored.
"Tanner is a streaky, little cat," Holbrook quipped of his No. 9 hitter, whose walk-up music is ironically a Snoop Dogg jam.
The Gamecocks (33-10, 11-8 SEC) will try to clinch the series 2 p.m. Saturday in a game that will be televised on ESPN. The Crimson Tide (28-14, 12-7 SEC) could potentially be playing to retain its hold on first place in the West Division.
Holbrook said he was just pleased his team got the first game.
"We've had a run around here from time to time with a lot of consistent, two-out hits and seem to catch fire and get contagious and it starts rolling down hill, we get some momentum," Holbrook said. "I don't know if we're there yet, but (Cone's triple) was a nice at-bat in a big game on a Friday night in the league.