COLUMBIA — Even amid the worst of it, on a dank Thursday night in a near-empty Carolina Stadium when Vanderbilt seemed to be piling on runs at will, Chad Holbrook sensed that something was about to change.
“As bad as that moment felt,” said South Carolina’s head baseball coach, “I got an indication our team was going to band together.”
How else to explain the next 48 hours, when a USC squad which seemed to be playing its way out of the NCAA Tournament turned things around against perhaps the best team on its schedule? Friday night, it was Jack Wynkoop’s gem of a complete game which ended a five-game slide. And Saturday it was Max Schrock, belting a triple which sparked the Gamecocks to not just a 3-2 victory over the fifth-ranked Commodores, but also their first SEC series win in over a month.
A series which opened with a 12-0 Vanderbilt victory Thursday ended with South Carolina’s first back-to-back wins in SEC play since it swept Kentucky on the opening weekend of conference action in early March. And a week which began with USC’s 15-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances in jeopardy — not to mention plenty of questions about the state of the program — ended with two morale-boosting wins over the defending national champions.
“It was real critical for our confidence,” Schrock said. “I think we were scuffling. These two wins show that if we all come together, if we play together, we can be a really good team.”
They certainly looked like one Saturday, despite falling behind 2-0 after Vanderbilt’s Jeren Kendall homered in the second inning off USC starter Clarke Schmidt, and scored on a wild pitch in the fifth off reliever Cody Mincey. The Gamecocks (25-16, 8-10 SEC) broke through in the sixth, when D.C. Arendas was hit by a pitch and scored when Schrock hammered a triple into the gap in left-center.
“He thrives against the best,” Holbrook said of Schrock. “That’s just how he’s always been.”
Schrock couldn’t resist a fist-bump after he slid into third. “It was very emotional and very exciting,” he said. “It was fun.”
Kyle Martin walked, and Schrock came home to the tie the game on a single by Alex Destino. Martin scored what proved the game-winning run on a single by Logan Koch, who waited on a fastball from Vanderbilt reliever Kyle Wright and earned his first RBI in conference play.
“Best thing to do is hit the fastball,” Koch said. “My dad used to tell me, ‘What’s the best way to hit the curveball? Answer is, hit the fastball.’”
USC turned it over to closer Taylor Widener, who entered with one out in the seventh, gave up a walk to Rhett Wiseman, and didn’t allow another baserunner the rest of the game. Widener struck out two Commodores to strand two runners in the seventh, and struck out Vanderbilt leadoff man Ro Coleman looking to end the game.
“If we had a chance to win the game, tied or ahead late, we were giving it to Widener,” Holbrook said. “Whether it was in the sixth, seventh or eighth, we were going to give it to him and see if we could hold on. We held on.”
Vanderbilt (29-12, 12-6) has now lost five of seven after being ranked No. 1 a week ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, rebounded after being swept in Florida last weekend by a combined score 38-10, and dropping an extra-inning mid-week game to Presbyterian.
“We definitely had a chip on our shoulder this weekend,” Widener said.
It showed over the past two games, when the Gamecocks looked more like the team everyone expected them to be. Now there’s the opportunity for more — after a Tuesday game at Furman, USC plays at a Tennessee team swept this weekend by Kentucky, and then returns home to face an Auburn squad which was 6-10 in SEC play entering Saturday.
“We have some issues. We have some things that we need to work on and shore up,” Holbrook said. “We’re certainly no perfect baseball team, by any stretch. But they gave me all they had these last 18 innings, and if we can do that these last (15) games, I’ll be a proud coach and I think we’ll be sitting in an OK spot.”