COLUMBIA — Of course hitting, pitching and defense are the keys, and all were sublime on April 11.
But South Carolina’s baseball team has the kind of attitude that winning teams have, and it’s a big reason why the No. 9 Gamecocks are standing at 8-4 in the SEC after a 13-4 win over Missouri clinched their third straight series win.
“I’ve seen it too many times to think it’s a coincidence so far this season. It’s happened a number of times in one way or another emotionally, and we always seem to respond,” USC coach Mark Kingston said. “I think that speaks to the character of the players, the fight they have as winners, and it’s great to see. Great to see.”
It seemed fate that it would come down to an off-the-field kerfluffle that seemed to energize the Gamecocks (21-9), although they had an 8-4 lead at the time. Social media accusations were lobbed at USC’s administration during the first two games of the series, claiming that students were ejected from Founders Park for heckling.
The crescendo reached such a peak that athletic director Ray Tanner finally had to clear the air on April 10, saying that nobody had been ejected (the students in question were told to vacate the seats they were in since they belonged to other fans) and issuing a statement. He said that he wanted Founders to have a homefield advantage with a family atmosphere, and nobody would be removed for heckling, as long as it wasn’t profane or vulgar.
So after the seventh inning on April 11, with Mizzou leadoff hitter Mark Vierling already ejected for arguing balls and strikes, Tigers shortstop Joshua Day took exception to something from a group of fans above his dugout and was jawing while pointing, while the fans were returning the favors. Security was dispatched, and three fans were briefly asked to vacate their seats before they returned within a few minutes.
Then in the eighth, as USC third base coach Stuart Lake was reporting to his position and clapping his hands to encourage the crowd, he apparently heard something he didn’t like from the Mizzou dugout. He went nose-to-nose with an assistant coach or two, and the umpires had to intervene.
With that over and Founders Park, even with COVID restrictions, roaring as loud as it has since a win in the Clemson series, pitcher Brett Kerry (3-0) sat down the side in order. Then the Gamecocks plated five runs in the bottom of the eighth, capped by Andrew Eyster’s two-run home run.
“It’s great to feed off our fans and play to our best,” Kerry said. “It’s a blast playing in our park when our fans are doing their job.”
The Gamecocks won their second consecutive series after losing the Friday game, and on a day where the pitching wasn’t as sharp as usual, came through with clutch hitting. Twelve RBIs (a 13th run was scored on a wild pitch) came with two strikes.
Starter Will Sanders didn’t have as much bite on his pitches as he has the last three weeks but only gave up two solo homers, including one on the game’s first pitch. Kerry relieved and struck out eight, although he also gave up six hits. Yet Sanders, Kerry nor Brett Thomas in the ninth walked a batter.
Brennan Milone, hitting .185 at the time, launched a tape-measure blast into the left-field bleachers in the second inning and had to admire it.
“Obviously, I’ve been struggling lately. It had been a while since I got one that good,” Milone said. “Honestly, that was just the frustration coming out from the past two weeks.”
When the SEC schedule was released and USC had its first two series at Vanderbilt and hosting Florida, some grimly thought the best the Gamecocks may get was a 2-4 record. Instead the Gamecocks went 4-2 with a sweep of the Gators, and followed by winning their next two series, each after losing the first game.
There’s a long way to go, but USC is looking very good for the postseason, and at this rate, hosting an NCAA Regional. New rules for this year will predetermine sites, so there is the possibility of a park winning a site and the home team not playing there, but that’s far from the Gamecocks’ minds.