Gamecocks sweep Missouri as SEC showdown looms

South Carolina outfielder Gene Cone (19) stretched his hitting streak to a school-record 27 games Sunday, part of a 5-for-5 effort against Missouri. (File, Wade Spees/Staff)

COLUMBIA — It’s not just a hitting streak anymore. It’s a hitting surge, and it’s powering South Carolina straight into a showdown for first place in the SEC.

Gamecocks outfielder Gene Cone continued his torrid pace at the plate with a career-best five hits Sunday, including a triple in his first at-bat that stretched his hitting streak to a school-record 27 games, and led 12th-ranked USC to a 9-2 victory and a sweep of Missouri at Founders Park.

Cone hit safely in his 26th straight game Saturday to break the USC single-season record previously set by Greg Keatley in 1976. Sunday the junior from Columbia seized the overall school record previously set by Whit Merrifield over the course of the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

“I’ve never done anything even close to this. So it’s up there,” Cone said, when asked where the streak ranks in his career. “I don’t know if I’ve even had a 10-game hitting streak in my life. I don’t know how to feel about it.”

But the streak is only part of the tear Cone has been on lately. The junior from Columbia added two doubles and two singles Sunday, finishing with three runs scored and three runs batted in. After going 5 for 5 for the day and 9 for 11 for the series, he leads the Gamecocks at the plate with a .377 average and is hitting .457 in SEC games.

“He’s just locked in,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “He competes every pitch. He gives himself a chance, because he doesn’t chase pitches out of the strike zone, and he’s got a short stroke. … He’s going to have tough weekends and he’ll get into some tough luck. But right now, he’s locked in and he’s hitting them where they ain’t. He’s hitting them with authority, too, and that’s pretty cool.”

With the victory, USC (33-8, 14-4 SEC) surpassed its overall and league victory totals from last season, when it missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. The Gamecocks hold a one-game lead over No. 2 Florida in the SEC standings, with the Gators coming to Founders Park for a three-game series beginning Friday at 7 p.m. on the SEC Network.

“I think we’re really confident,” said USC outfielder T.J. Hopkins, a Summerville native who went 3 for 5 Sunday. Losing a series at Georgia last weekend “was kind of a wake-up call for us, I think,” he added. “These past two days, we’ve really swung the bats well.”

Hopkins, who finished with three RBIs, two runs scored and two stolen bases, had his second consecutive multi-hit game. Gamecocks starter Adam Hill pitched six shutout innings, limiting Missouri (20-21, 4-14) to four hits and one walk while striking out eight.

Cone’s record-setter came in the first at-bat of the game, when he laced the fourth pitch from Missouri starter Michael Plassmeyer into right-center for a triple. Tigers right fielder Kirby McGuire made a lunging effort, but the ball deflected off his glove and rolled to the wall.

Hopkins singled to bring him home, and the Gamecocks emerged from the dugout to greet him. Cone owns the longest active streak in Division I and is two shy of matching the longest streak nationally this season.

“I’m just very thankful and very grateful to be able to be a part of something like that,” Cone said. “At the end of the day, I’m just thankful.”