COLUMBIA — Chad Holbrook asked for a hero. Jack Wynkoop gave him one.
South Carolina’s junior left-hander pitched his best game of the season when his team needed it most, striking out a career-high 12 in his first complete-game effort to lead the Gamecocks past No. 5 Vanderbilt 5-2 Friday at Carolina Stadium. Wynkoop’s clutch outing ended a five-game USC losing streak, and prevented the program’s first six-game skid since the final days under former coach June Raines in 1996.
Just as importantly, it provided a needed morale boost for a USC team which had been outscored 50-10 in its last four SEC games, including 12-0 by Vanderbilt in the series opener Thursday. Now the Gamecocks (24-16, 7-10 SEC) enter Saturday’s 1 p.m. finale looking for their first win in a conference series since sweeping Kentucky in the opening weekend of league play.
“That’s how South Carolina is supposed to play,” said Holbrook, USC’s head coach. “We’d kind of lost our way a little bit. But tonight was special.”
So was Wynkoop, who bettered previous personal highs of 10 strikeouts and eight innings pitched, and earned a well-deserved ovation from the home crowd when he returned to the mound for the ninth. The native of Virginia Beach, Va., kept Vanderbilt off-balance with early strikes, and allowed the Commodores (29-11, 12-5) their only runs on a two-RBI single by Rhett Wiseman in the seventh.
“I didn’t put any extra pressure on myself,” Wynkoop said. “I just went out there and tried to put our team in a position to win.”
But with staff ace Wil Crowe out for the rest of the season with an elbow injury, and no clear starter for Saturday — Taylor Widener, Clarke Schmidt and Josh Reagan are among the leading candidates — this was the game USC had to have. Following Thursday’s lopsided loss, Holbrook said he needed one of his players to do something heroic to help pull the Gamecocks out of their malaise. Wynkoop certainly fit the part.
“His demeanor might strike you a little different,” said third baseman D.C. Arendas, whose two-run homer gave USC an early lead. “He’s a laid-back surfer. But he’s got a lot of heart, and we needed that tonight.”
USC took the lead for good in the bottom of the seventh, after Wiseman’s single had tied it. Three Vanderbilt pitchers combined to walk four straight South Carolina batters, forcing in the go-ahead run when Max Schrock drew a base on balls. Kyle Martin followed with a sacrifice fly to put USC ahead 4-2, and the Gamecocks added an insurance run in the eighth on a sacrifice fly by Gene Cone.
But the story was Wynkoop, who pitched what he called the best game of his career at a moment when USC was desperate for anything positive. The lingering effect of Thursday’s loss was evident Friday when SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum broadcast live from the stadium, and the host asked about the state of the Gamecocks program in an interview with athletics director Ray Tanner.
“I believe in what (Holbrook) is doing. I believe in the program,” said Tanner, Holbrook’s predecessor as baseball coach. “It hasn’t been great lately, but I think it’s temporary. I think we’ll be back to where we need to be sooner rather than later.”
The result Friday, keyed by Wynkoop’s outing, was certainly a hopeful sign. “With the things we’ve been battling recently, it was something we had to have,” Arendas said. “It’s something he’s going to remember forever, so it was huge to get that from him.”
— South Carolina’s Sept. 3 football opener at Bank of America Stadium isn’t the only time USC will play North Carolina in Charlotte. Tanner told Finebaum the Gamecocks and Tar Heels will also meet next season in baseball at Charlotte’s year-old minor league park. Although the two teams met in the 2007 and 2013 NCAA Super Regionals, they haven’t played during the regular season since a 2004 game in Fort Mill.
— Shortstop Marcus Mooney left the game in the fourth with a reoccurrence of a hamstring injury which will likely keep him out of Saturday’s series finale. Holbrook said outfielder Connor Bright, a Mount Pleasant native, was kept out of Friday’s game due to a thumb injury which made it difficult for him to swing the bat.