Gamecocks on the brink after another SEC series gets away

South Carolina starting pitcher Clarke Schmidt allowed three earned runs in 5.1 innings pitched Sunday against Auburn. (File/USC sports information)

COLUMBIA — Gene Cone dove, but he couldn’t get there in time. The ball off the bat of Auburn’s Kyler Deese landed in front of the South Carolina centerfielder and rolled almost to the warning track — and very likely, took the Gamecocks’ last remaining NCAA Tournament hopes with it.

Deese’s sixth-inning double drove in two runs,, and South Carolina was limited to three hits in a 3-0 loss in the rubber game of a three-game series at Carolina Stadium. USC dropped its second consecutive SEC series after winning the opener, and will miss the NCAAs for the first time since 1999 barring miracle runs over the season’s final two weekends or in the SEC tournament.

After Sunday’s loss, the Gamecocks (27-21, 10-14 SEC) need to go 5-1 in their final two league series to finish at .500 in conference play and maintain any hope of receiving an NCAA at-large bid. That’s a lot to ask, given that South Carolina — which has won just two SEC series all season — travels to No. 3 Texas A&M next weekend, finishes at home against No. 1 LSU, and could miss the league tournament altogether.

“Obviously, we know what’s left in the league. That task is a tall one,” said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. “We certainly won’t have much success against those guys with the offensive output we’ve had the last 18 innings. But all you can do is strap it on, go back to work, try some new things, maybe. I don’t know. Sometimes baseball can be a very cruel game, and we’re seeing that right now.”

Gamecocks starter Clarke Schmidt gave South Carolina a chance, allowing three runs through 5.1 innings, but his offense provided no help. USC started players batting .188, .188 and .077 in its lineup, the top half of which went 0-for-17 Sunday. USC had just two hits until Madison Stokes legged out a grounder in the ninth.

“We didn’t do enough offensively today to help Clarke,” said Gamecocks third baseman D.C. Arendas. “Clarke gave us a great effort. He kept us in the game. But offensively, we didn’t do enough for him.”

Holbrook, whose team lost to Auburn 6-2 on Saturday and has now dropped 10 of its last 14, agreed. “If you’d told me before the game today we were only going to give up three runs, I’d have taken it and took our chances,” he said.

The Tigers (32-17, 12-12) went ahead 1-0 in the fifth after catcher Blake Logan, who would score on a sacrifice fly, was credited with a double on a ball that bounced off the glove of lunging USC left fielder Clark Scolamiero. And Deese’s double in the sixth ahead of a diving Cone all but sealed it.

“We’re trying like crazy in the outfield, diving all over the place,” Holbrook said. “It’s not for lack of effort.”

South Carolina’s only scoring threat came in the fifth, when USC used walks to put two on with none out, but came away empty. Holbrook said his players are putting in double sessions in the hitting cages trying to generate more offense. “In baseball sometimes, you can work extremely hard, and there’s still no guarantee of success,” he added.

USC’s streak of 15 consecutive NCAA appearances, which dates back to the fourth year under former coach and current athletics director Ray Tanner, is the longest in the SEC. The Gamecocks also aren’t guaranteed of competing for an automatic bid — only the top 12 teams advance to the SEC Tournament, and USC stands 10th in standings regardless of division.

And three of the teams below USC — Mississippi State, Georgia and Tennessee — hold tiebreakers over the Gamecocks, who haven’t missed the SEC tournament since 1996, the final season under former head coach June Raines.

“They understand the expectation that goes with playing here,” Holbrook said of his team. “It’s only natural when you struggle, and maybe you have some losses and your record is not up to the standard of what South Carolina is all about — sure, they put pressure on themselves and maybe try harder, and maybe that’s weighing them down a tad. But they’re only human.”