Cone’s homer lifts USC over Florida

Allen Sharpe/Spurs and Feathers South Carolina’s Gene Cone celebrates with teammates after hitting his seventh-inning home run during the Gamecocks’ win on Saturday.

In the aftermath of their most difficult loss of the season, Chad Holbrook issued a challenge to his South Carolina baseball team. They could let it linger, or they could return to the ballpark determined to leave it behind.

In batting practice, he had his answer. “They looked locked in,” the Gamecocks head coach said. “They looked ready to play.”

And Saturday night, they tied their weekend series against No. 1 Florida behind a home run by Gene Cone and a shut-down ninth inning from reliever Tyler Johnson. Cone extended his school-record hitting streak to 29 games, and his seventh-inning bomb was the difference in a 2-1 victory by sixth-ranked South Carolina before a sellout crowd of 8,242 at Founders Park.

The victory knotted the three-game series between SEC leaders, which concludes Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Florida (37-7, 14-6 SEC) took Friday’s opening game on a pair of ninth-inning homers that handed the Gamecocks (34-9, 15-5) their first conference loss this season at home.

“This was huge,” said Cone, who went 2-for-3 and is now batting .382. “This was easily our biggest win, and our biggest game of the season.”

It was just the fourth victory for the Gamecocks in their last 17 games against Florida. In Sunday’s finale, South Carolina goes for its first series victory over the Gators since the championship round of the 2011 College World Series.

“They’re an excellent team, but we’ve been out in front of them from (Friday’s) game, and we got ahead of them tonight,” said USC starter Braden Webb, who picked up his league-leading ninth victory after allowing one earned run in 71/3 innings. “I don’t think there’s team in this country we can’t compete with.”

Cone extended his hitting streak to 29 consecutive games with a double in the first. The Columbia native tied Matt Reardon of Florida Gulf Coast for the longest hitting streak in Division I this season, and is seven shy of the SEC record of 36 last matched by Vanderbilt’s Ryan Flaherty over the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

And in a 1-1 game, Cone struck again — this time for just his fifth career homer. The junior hammered a two-out, seventh-inning delivery from Gators reliever Kirby Snead over the wall in right-center for what would be the deciding run.

“I feel like he can hit anybody,” Holbrook said of Cone. “You throw it over the plate, his swing is so short and compact, he has a solid shot to make contact. He’s just dialed in.”

Florida threatened in the top of the eighth, putting two runners on with one out against Webb. USC went to the bullpen for Johnson, who struck out the next two batters — including catcher J.J. Schwarz on an eye-level, two-out, full-count fastball — to preserve the lead.

The Gators’ ninth-inning rally Friday came against USC closer John Reagan, the SEC leader in saves with 11. Saturday the call went to Johnson, who allowed an infield hit to open the inning, and struck out Ryan Larson with the tying run on third to end the game.

“We just loved the way Tyler threw in the eighth there,” Holbrook said. “You could say, well, why didn’t you do that last night? Well, different game. You just go with your gut at the time. You have to make a decision that moment.”

It was a tense, emotional game, which saw Florida starter A.J. Puk and USC outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams jawing at each other, and the crowd so frenzied “honestly, the field was shaking out there,” Johnson said. Never more so than in the late innings, when USC made the plays to win the game after letting one get away the night before.

“We had a lot of guts tonight,” Thompson-Williams said. “It just showed who our team is to the entire country.”