COLUMBIA - As he arrived at the ballpark Sunday, Chad Holbrook wondered how his players would respond to his first fire-and-brimstone pep talk of the spring.
It was a speech South Carolina's veterans had heard before, during high-pressure postseason games, usually in June. This was different. After his team's one-run loss to Alabama on Saturday, Holbrook told players to treat their final game of April like it was the final game of a super regional.
"Sometimes I hesitate to tell a team that, because you don't want to tighten them up," Holbrook said. "But when you play at South Carolina, that comes with the territory. If you can't play under pressure, this is the wrong place for you."
Holbrook got the response he wanted.
No. 11 South Carolina pummeled No. 8 Alabama, 9-3, before ESPN cameras and a crowd of 8,074, just 168 fans shy of the series' third sellout. The Gamecocks (34-11, 12-9 SEC) clinched their second straight SEC series in dominant fashion, recording a conference season-high 17 hits and scoring six runs in the final three innings.
"I don't know about 'must-win,' but obviously we wanted to come out and play hard and play strong and keep the ball rolling," said junior first baseman Kyle Martin, who had his third four-hit game of the season.
"The energy in the dugout was awesome today," he added.
It wasn't easy, not against an Alabama team still sitting No. 1 in the SEC West.
The Gamecocks jumped out to an early 3-0 lead behind four dominant innings from freshman pitcher Wil Crowe. The right hander fell apart in the fifth as Alabama scored three runs to tie the game.
When Crowe allowed a walk to start the sixth inning, his once-promising day was done.
"Wil was really good for four innings," Holbrook said. "I thought he had his best stuff of the year, and then that daggum fifth inning with young pitchers is sometimes a big hurdle to get over. He kind scuffled a little bit in that inning."
South Carolina bounced back with a three-run sixth inning, sparked by freshman second baseman Gene Cone. The Columbia native, whose three-run triple Friday was the defining hit of Game 1, poked a two-run single through the middle of the infield to break the tie.
The Gamecocks never trailed again.
"My approach was the same as it always is with two strikes," Cone said. "I was just trying to put the ball in play hard somewhere, and fortunately it found a hole. And it did feel good."
Holbrook called Sunday's game the biggest of the year. He said it was easy to see why the rubber match against the Crimson Tide (29-15, 13-8) fit that billing. His team rose to three games above .500 in SEC play for the first time in almost one month.
Following a five-game losing streak earlier this month, South Carolina has now won six of its past seven games. The Gamecocks are still dealing with several injuries, but they've overcome them on the field.
"I don't know if I can be more proud of my team than I am right now," Holbrook said. "We've kind of had some adversity, as you all know. We kept battling and competing, and we probably played our best baseball game of the year today in our biggest game of the year. When you do those things, it makes a coach proud."