USC earns testy sweep of Georgia

Until the fourth inning of South Carolina’s game Sunday against Georgia, there had been nothing particularly earth- shattering about the series. For the most part, the No. 15 Gamecocks played like a team peaking at the right time as they pursue a top eight national seed for the NCAA tournament. And Georgia performed like the Southeastern Conference’s worst team.

Almost everything had unfolded as expected, and that basically held true for the rest of the game, which USC won 8-3 after winning 7-2 on Friday and 7-1 on Saturday. Everything, that is, except the end of the fourth inning, when tempers flared and the umpires ejected three coaches.

In the end, it was all harmlessly entertaining, a little spice in an otherwise pedestrian series, albeit a valuable one for the Gamecocks (37-14, 16-10 SEC), who finish the regular season this weekend at Mississippi State with the NCAA tournament fast approaching, 18 days from today.

The fourth inning concluded with USC’s Joey Pankake being thrown out while trying to steal third base. As Georgia’s players left the field, second baseman Nelson Ward and shortstop Kyle Farmer appeared to exchange words with USC third base coach Sammy Esposito. Within moments, Esposito yelled at them and several Georgia players burst out of the dugout.

Umpires diffused the situation as quickly as it escalated. But it was reignited when Georgia first base coach Jason Jacobs walked toward his coach’s box for the fifth inning, saying something to USC’s dugout on his way there. USC coach Chad Holbrook and strength coach Billy Anderson sniped back at him. Though there was no significant physical contact in the dustup, Esposito, Jacobs and Anderson were shown the gate.

“How I understood it to be was a little bit of a conversation between a couple of their players and Joey,” Holbrook said of the disagreement’s origins. “Then boys became boys. It’s no big deal. I’m proud of my team for not leaving the dugout. We’ve coached them hard on that.”

Holbrook knows Esposito could have calmed matters by walking away. Holbrook said he should learn today if the SEC will discipline Esposito, which Holbrook acknowledged was possible.

“He’s as fiery of a competitor as we’ve got, and that’s what I love about him,” Holbrook said. “Hey, I was coaching third one time, and I went nose to nose with the Vanderbilt coach. It happens. Espo feels terrible about it. Sometimes, when one thing is said here and there, we chirp back. Maybe we shouldn’t have chirped back, but we did.”

After the game, Holbrook said he and Georgia coach Dave Perno exchanged apologizes. More pertinent to the game’s outcome was the response USC got from freshman starting pitcher Jack Wynkoop after the spat, and the ensuing delay during which the umps distributed ejections.

Nursing a 6-2 lead, Wynkoop retired Georgia (18-31, 5-19) in order in the fifth, and struck out the first two batters. Before the inning, Holbrook was so concerned about Wynkoop’s mindset that he told pitching coach Jerry Meyers to have setup man Adam Westmoreland warm up.

But, as Wynkoop said afterward of the delay, “It didn’t affect me at all.” He just threw a few extra warmup pitches, and then demonstrated his steady demeanor to Holbrook.

Wynkoop now has a 2.75 ERA, which is actually highest among USC’s three starters. Jordan Montgomery is at 1.86, Nolan Belcher 2.23. That is an encouraging sign for the Gamecocks as they prepare for the NCAA tournament. So is the fact that they hit .315 while dominating Georgia and are now batting .285 for the year.

Typical of their resilient season, USC had 12 hits Sunday despite top hitter LB Dantzler sitting out with a sore shoulder. He should be ready for the Mississippi State series, which begins Thursday. If the Gamecocks win two of three, they will be in the conversation for a national seed.

The Georgia sweep kept them in it for now.

“It was a very big weekend for our team,” Holbrook said. “We played about as good as we could play.”