Gamecocks find a way

USC’s Kyle Martin waits for the ball as CofC’s Champ Rowland dives safely back to first base during their game Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015, at Carolina Baseball Stadium. Paul Zoeller/Staff

The spark South Carolina was missing in its season opener finally arrived Saturday, and the results were evident everywhere from the dugout to the batter’s box to the scoreboard.

First baseman Kyle Martin, suspended for the start of a lackluster opening-day loss, roared back with four hits which spurred the 13th-ranked Gamecocks to a doubleheader sweep of College of Charleston before 8,032 at Carolina Stadium. Wil Crowe struck out a career-best 10 to lead USC to a 7-1 victory in the first game, and Alex Destino’s first career homer paved the way for an 8-3 win in the nightcap.

It was all quite a change from the day before, when the two-time national champions looked overmatched by Charleston starter Taylor Clarke, managing just four hits. Martin, South Carolina’s leading hitter last season, sat out the first three innings of that game due to an unspecified violation of team rules, and his absence from the starting lineup seemed to take some life out of a Gamecocks team which suffered its first opening-day loss since 1998.

“I think their pride was hurt in the way they played (Friday). They wanted to make up for it,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “Obviously, coaches were on them a little bit and we tried to motivate them the best we could. Told them that’s not how a South Carolina team plays. A South Carolina team competes. They responded the right way today.”

USC’s Jordan Gore had three hits and four runs batted in over the two games combined, while Max Schrock had three hits, three runs scored and one RBI. Mount Pleasant native Connor Bright hit a home run in the second game, which Taylor Widener closed with six strikeouts to tie a career high.

But the catalyst was Martin, who walked in his first at-bat and scored on a wild pitch, finished the first game with two hits and two runs batted in, and added a single, a double and a run scored in the nightcap.

Charleston (1-2) had its chance to win the second game, and with it the series. The Cougars led 2-0 after an Alex Pappas homer in the first inning, and then rallied to tie 3-3 in the top of the sixth on a bases-loaded walk. But in the bottom of the inning Schrock walked, and the freshman Destino blasted a two-out delivery from reliever Hayden McCutcheon over the right-field wall for a lead the Gamecocks (2-1) would never relinquish.

“I’m disappointed, there’s no question about it,” said Cougars coach Monte Lee. “After winning Game 1 you expect to find a way to win the series. You have to give South Carolina a lot of credit for winning two games in one day, it’s very difficult to do that. But their pitching staff was very, very good.”

That certainly summed up Crowe’s effort in the opener, where the sophomore allowed four hits in just over six innings. The loss from the day before was still stinging when he took the mound. “I wanted to come out and try to light some fire under the guys and show them that it’s a big day, and it’s a good day to play,” the right-hander said.

Holbrook could tell. “That’s the first time he was like, ‘Y’all jump on my back.’ He had some great performances last year, don’t get me wrong. But there was a presence about him today. An air, so to speak, of ‘I’m not going to let us lose this game today.’ That was good to see.”

For a Charleston team that won an NCAA Regional at Florida last season and had hopes of notching a series victory over another SEC team, Saturday’s outcome was a bitter one. The Cougars’ pitching staff couldn’t keep South Carolina at bay in the finale, allowing seven walks while C of C hitters went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

“We came in here expecting to win,” Pappas said, “but we just made some bad pitches, and we could have done a better job hitting-wise.”

For the Gamecocks, it was a stark turnaround from the night before. The opener left Martin wondering why there was a lack of energy in the dugout, left Gore getting in his teammates’ faces in the locker room, and left Holbrook tossing and turning even hours later.

“I didn’t sleep any last night. I was just mad,” the USC coach said. “My wife, I shouldn’t say this, but she slept on the couch because she didn’t want to sleep in the same room with me.”

It was a bad night. It was a bad night, and I put a lot of the blame on myself for the way I handled the situation. That’s just part of the game. Good to see the boys respond today.”