Gamecocks’ hopes hinge on season’s final game

LSU starting pitcher Austin Bain shut down South Carolina and led the top-ranked Tigers to a victory in Friday night's second game of their SEC weekend series. (Jim Lytle/AP/File)

For South Carolina, it will feel like the deciding game of an NCAA Super Regional, on the final day of the regular season.

Austin Bain limited USC to one hit over the first six innings, and LSU’s vaunted offense pounded out 15 hits Friday night as the top-ranked Tigers defeated South Carolina 9-2 before a sellout crowd of 8,242 at Carolina Stadium. The Gamecocks’ hopes of a 16th consecutive NCAA bid may now hinge on Saturday’s 8 p.m. series finale — in which they’ll face LSU’s ace, and be without their own pitching coach.

Jerry Meyers was ejected in the fifth inning Friday by home plate umpire Steve Dew, who was unhappy with comments he heard coming from the Gamecocks dugout following a series of pitches by USC starter Clarke Schmidt which were ruled balls. Under NCAA rules, Meyers must also sit out the next game — the most important of South Carolina’s season.

“We coach with some passion, and the magnitude of the situation, we felt like we needed to defend our player,” said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. “Usually in a situation like that, you hope to get a warning .... We didn’t get warned tonight, and it cost us our pitching coach tomorrow in the biggest game of the year.”

USC (32-23, 13-16 SEC) likely needs to win this three-game series to earn NCAA at-large consideration regardless of what happens next week in the league tournament. Over the past decade, four SEC teams with 13 conference victories and an overall winning record have made the NCAAs, while 10 SEC teams with 14 league wins — one shy of .500 — have been awarded berths.

South Carolina’s RPI climbed seven spots to No. 49 after Thursday’s victory, and should creep up over the course of the weekend given that the Tigers stand sixth. But the Gamecocks will try to win the series against LSU ace Alex Lange, who is 9-0 and has a 2.13 earned run average. USC has not missed the NCAA Tournament since 1999, the third season under former head coach Ray Tanner.

“It’s going to be a huge game,” Schmidt said. “I think we’re going to come out with a ton of energy, especially because we know we have our fate in our hands. We’re going to put it all on the line. I think we’re going to treat it like a Super Regional game and leave it all on the field.”

Added Holbrook: “We have a great opportunity in front of us, and that’s what we’re going to treat it as.”

Early on, USC carried over the energy from its victory in Thursday night’s opener, and took a first-inning lead on a Max Schrock solo homer which was nearly identical to the one he had unleashed the evening before. But Bain, a freshman righty limiting opponents to a .204 average, didn’t allow another hit until the seventh, when he left with a five-run lead.

“He was throwing pretty good for a while,” said USC first baseman Kyle Martin. “We just didn’t hit. He stayed under control for a while and kept himself balanced.”

Bain was backed up by the best offense in the SEC. LSU (45-9, 20-8) struck for two-out runs in the second and fourth innings before widening the gap with a three-run fifth. Kade Scivicque and Andrew Stevenson smacked back-to-back doubles — again with two out — to increase the lead to 5-1, and another double by Scivicque in the seventh put two more runs on the board.

“It’s a real tough lineup,” Schmdt said. “They’re good at putting the ball in play. They don’t strike out at all, basically.”

Schmidt worked into the sixth inning, allowing four earned runs on 10 hits. As for the close ball/strike calls, which raised the ire of the home crowd, “There’s nothing really I can do about it,” he said. “You can’t let that get to you as a pitcher. ... I thought maybe I could have gotten a couple more calls, but I can’t do anything about that.”

The USC dugout tried to, and it cost the Gamecocks their pitching coach for a pivotal season finale.

“We had some things go against us there, and it just seemed there were some tight pitches, marginal pitches, and they didn’t go our way,” Holbrook said. “And when they didn’t go our way, LSU made us pay for them.”

Mount Pleasant’s Connor Bright was one of five USC seniors honored prior to Friday’s game. The Wando High School product was inactive for the LSU series due to an arm injury suffered last weekend against Texas A&M. Bright has endured a difficult season, batting .149, but he earned a robust ovation from the crowd for his career exploits which included 166 games played and several big hits against Clemson.

Bright, who graduated last week with a sport management degree, was accompanied by his parents Michael and Jill. Also honored Friday night were seniors Patrick Harrington, Elliott Caldwell, Cody Mincey and Kyle Martin.