COLUMBIA — The bases were loaded Thursday night in the seventh inning of a tie game, one South Carolina desperately wanted to win. The opponent: no less than the nation’s top-ranked team, Florida, a heated Southeastern Conference rival for the Gamecocks.
USC coach Ray Tanner called on left-handed pinch hitter Kyle Martin for matchup purposes against righty Austin Maddox. Martin, a freshman, had a team-best .375 batting average entering Thursday, but just three RBIs — a "glaring" statistic that Tanner said was on his mind when he put Martin in this big spot.
While Tanner told Martin to try to hit a sacrifice fly, Martin remembered the bottom of the first inning, when USC had no outs and the bases loaded and got no run, a situation Martin would say later is "tough to bounce back from."
But he did, as his single scored two runs and ended up being the game-winning hit in a 9-3 victory, a huge bounceback game for USC. After Martin’s hit broke a 2-2 tie, USC added two more in the seventh and three in the eighth for the convincing win.
"I don’t think we were trying to make a statement to Florida or anybody," said starting pitching Michael Roth, who allowed four hits and two runs, one earned, in 6
2/3innings. "I think we were trying to make a statement to ourselves, to prove that we can still play and get out of that funk that we were in."
Indeed, the eighth-ranked Gamecocks needed the victory in a bad way after dropping four of their previous five games entering Thursday, including a three-game sweep last weekend in their first SEC series. They emerged from that slump in grand fashion, while sold-out Carolina Stadium buzzed from start to finish.
Likewise, this was a game Florida had surely looked forward to since it went 0-2 against USC in last year’s College World Series finals. Before Thursday’s game, the Gators stood on the top step of their dugout and watched USC’s back-to-back national champions highlight video play on the scoreboard — as if they needed any more motivation.
They got a strong performance from starter Hudson Randall, who struck out a career-high 11 batters and walked just one in 5
2/3innings. Never was he better than in the first inning, when he escaped a no-out, bases-loaded jam by striking out three consecutive batters.
"When you get some opportunities against a guy like Hudson Randall, sometimes it’s only once," Tanner said.
But after Randall departed, with the game tied at two in the sixth, the night unraveled for Florida (20-2, 3-1 SEC) and its bullpen.
Meanwhile, Tanner turned to his No. 2 starter, Matt Price, to pitch the final 2
1/3innings. Price, who was the closer last season and may be again now, allowed no hits and struck out three. USC’s bullpen had struggled lately, and Tanner isn’t sure what Price’s role will be going forward. But he won’t start tonight. There is a good chance reliever Forrest Koumas will. He started last year and moved to the bullpen this season when Price became a starter.
Roth talked Wednesday, after USC lost to Wofford, about the Gamecocks (17-5, 1-3) needing to show more toughness, particularly when trying to come back. Entering Thursday, the Gamecocks were 4-5 this season in games in which they fell behind. Roth hoped that he and the other leaders, including fellow senior Adam Matthews, could rally the team.
Thursday’s Florida lead wasn’t monumental — 1-0 after the top of the fourth — but the Gamecocks were able to counter in the bottom of that inning, with what turned out to be the only major blemish on Randall’s line.
Matthews, the No. 9 hitter, entered Thursday with 12 hits this season, and just two for extra bases, including a home run. He popped his second, on a curveball, over the left field wall with two outs in the fourth, putting the Gamecocks up 2-1.
The homer sparked a victory that was important, though not monumental, because it is still March. Matthews summed it up well by saying, simply, "It’s big for us going forward."