COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s best pitcher watched from the dugout, his arm used up two nights earlier. USC’s pitching coach sat out under suspension. The Gamecocks’ power-hitting second baseman wasn’t in the lineup, and then he was, and then he came out after four innings with a sprained wrist that made it difficult for him to swing the bat.
But even if Jack Wynkoop had been on the mound, Jerry Meyers had been in the dugout, and Max Schrock had been fully healthy, it might not have been enough — either to take a series from No. 1 LSU, or squeeze South Carolina into the NCAA Tournament for a 16th consecutive season.
USC was held to two hits, and the Gamecocks’ postseason hopes now rest on next week’s SEC Tournament after an 8-1 loss to LSU Saturday in the deciding game of a three-game set before a sellout crowd of 8,242 at Carolina Stadium. Just four SEC teams over the past decade have received NCAA at-large bids with 13 conference wins, which is where USC finishes the regular season.
“South Carolina should not be in this spot,” said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. “And it’s my responsibility. I take responsibility for that, and I’m going to get it fixed.”
So South Carolina (32-24, 13-17 SEC) has work to do in Hoover, Ala., where it will play as the No. 10 seed. The Gamecocks open at 2 p.m. Tuesday in a single-elimination game against No. 7 seed Missouri, which took two out of three from South Carolina in the regular season. The winner moves into double-elimination play Wednesday against No. 2 seed Vanderbilt, whose loss Saturday at Alabama clinched the SEC title for LSU before the Tigers took the field against USC.
“The season is probably on the line Tuesday,” Holbrook said. “Let’s go down there and see if we can keep playing.”
USC’s 13 SEC victories mark its lowest total since 1997, the first season under former head coach Ray Tanner, now USC’s athletics director. The Gamecocks have not missed the NCAA Tournament since 1999. The 64-team field will be announced May 25 — and barring an unforeseen run to the SEC tourney championship, it will be an anxious wait for USC.
“It’s a little bit of a letdown,” said USC shortstop Marcus Mooney. “But we’re not done. We’ll keep fighting and clawing in the SEC Tournament.”
A series victory over top-ranked LSU would certainly have bolstered USC’s postseason resume, but the Tigers (46-9, 21-8) were in control Saturday from the very start. Pitcher Alex Lange held USC without a hit until the fifth, and struck out nine. Chris Chinea’s two-run blast in the second gave LSU the lead, Alex Bregman’s homer in the third extended it, and the Gamecocks simply couldn’t keep pace with a Tigers offense that pounded out hits at will.
South Carolina had scored 63 runs over a six-game stretch that included Thursday’s 10-7 opener over the Tigers, and in which the Gamecocks had gone 5-1 to climb back onto the NCAA bubble. But that offensive reawakening ended abruptly in the final two games against LSU, in which USC was limited to a combined seven hits and three runs.
“It’s baseball,” said USC first baseman Kyle Martin. “Lange came out and had great stuff .... Tip your cap to him.”
The Gamecocks played Saturday without pitching coach Meyers, ejected the previous night for voicing his displeasure with the strike zone. And they finished without Schrock, their third-leading hitter, who homered in each of the series’ first two games. Schrock, suffering from a sprained wrist, wasn’t in USC’s original starting lineup, but he went to Holbrook and asked to play.
“When one of my players who has the heart of a lion asks to play, and the trainer says he can play, I put him in there,” Holbrook said.
It proved wishful thinking. Schrock was replaced by Matt Williams following a third-inning strikeout. And South Carolina later lost right fielder Elliott Caldwell, its second-leading hitter, who has been bothered by a sprained knee since trying to avoid a tag in Thursday’s opener, and was replaced by Patrick Harrington in the seventh inning Saturday. Both are questionable for the SEC Tournament.
“In the state that we’re in from a health standpoint,” Holbrook said, “it’s tough to compete against them.”