COLUMBIA — One minute, South Carolina’s best pitcher was walking off the mound trailing by four runs. The next, the Gamecocks had put themselves within one victory of a potential NCAA Tournament bid that seemed improbable only a few weeks ago.
D.C. Arendas launched a game-tying homer in the sixth, and the Gamecocks literally walked all over LSU’s bullpen in the seventh, continuing their offensive awakening Thursday with a 10-7 victory over the top-ranked Tigers at Carolina Stadium. USC (32-22, 13-15 SEC) likely needs to win the series against LSU (44-9, 19-8) to sneak into the NCAA Tournament for a 16th consecutive season.
“They’re starting to believe in themselves a little more than they did earlier,” said head coach Chad Holbrook. “And they are playing with a little bit more juice.”
It’s showing at the plate. USC, 13th in the SEC in batting, has scored 63 runs over its last six games, and is 5-1 during that stretch. A series win at No. 8 Texas A&M last weekend sparked a revival which continued in Thursday’s comeback victory over the top-ranked Tigers.
“Last week showed we can really battle with anybody,” said first baseman Kyle Martin, who had two hits and scored two runs, “and this game shows how tough we really are.”
Max Schrock put USC ahead with a solo homer in the first, but LSU tied the game on a blast by Chris Chinea and then seemed to break it open with a four-run fifth. Danny Zardon provided the big blow with a two-out double that gave the Tigers a 5-1 lead.
USC starter Jack Wynkoop, who had delivered four straight quality starts to allow the Gamecocks to climb back to the fringes of NCAA contention, left to a standing ovation in the sixth trailing 6-2. The crowd of 7,507 was back on its feet in the bottom half of the inning, when the Gamecocks’ bats finally awoke to tie the game.
Elliott Caldwell plated one run with a groundout, Hunter Taylor delivered an RBI single, and then D.C. Arendas knotted the game with one swing — a two-run, two-out homer that sailed over a jubilant USC bullpen.
“I thought it had a chance to get out off the bat,” Arendas said. “I knew after LSU went up a couple of runs, we were going to have to claw our way back into it.”
Added Schrock, a junior: “That was the loudest I’ve heard Carolina Stadium since I’ve been here.”
The Gamecocks kept at it in the seventh. LSU relievers Jake Godfrey and Hunter Newman combined to force in runs off three consecutive bases-loaded walks, and Caldwell dove around a tag attempt to score on a short sac fly by Arendas. USC outhit LSU 15-11 — this from the same team held to seven runs over the final two games of a series loss at Tennessee, and two runs over the final two games of a series loss to Auburn.
“We’ve started putting some really competitive at-bats together,” Holbrook said. “... We’re just now starting to get some production up and down the lineup instead of just at the top, and it’s made a heck of a difference for us.”
USC maintained the lead thanks to double plays turned by Schrock and Arendas, and a popout that Martin went over the dugout railing to catch. Reed Scott pitched the final three innings, saving USC’s pitching staff for Friday’s 8 p.m. game. Taylor Widener or Clarke Schmidt are the contenders to start that contest, where the Gamecocks will go for a series win that might propel them into the postseason.
Over the past decade, the NCAA has awarded at-large bids to four SEC teams with 13 conference victories, where the Gamecocks stand now. Ten SEC teams with 14 league wins have gotten in. Sweeping the series and getting to .500 in SEC play would make USC all but a lock. Who knows what’s possible with this team now, the way it’s played the past two weeks.
“All year we’ve been confident in ourselves, we just haven’t played very well,” Arendas sad. “The last two weeks kind of epitomize that. We feel like we can play with the best teams in the country.”