COLUMBIA, S.C. — Players and coaches sat in the South Carolina baseball dugout Friday night at Founders Park, staring into the distance in seeming disbelief and wishing for a different outcome once again.
Minutes earlier, the dugout was loud, filled with all sorts of rally-inspiring antics and hopes that a frantic ninth-inning rally would be enough to scrape out a win and preserve any glimmer of postseason hopes. The hopes rose with the bases loaded before dying as Justin Row’s fly ball nestled safely into the glove of Georgia centerfielder Tucker Maxwell, handing South Carolina (31-23, 12-17 SEC) a 5-4 loss and its unfathomable eighth straight SEC series loss.
“At South Carolina, it’s very difficult to stomach,” Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook said. “We haven’t made enough plays and made enough pitches when the game is on the line. In this league, when you don’t step up and you have an opportunity to do so, this happens.”
Whatever NCAA Tournament hopes remain now rest in Hoover, Ala., and the coming SEC Tournament, where the Gamecocks will need a long run at the least to have a chance at playing in the postseason and likely need to win the whole tournament to avoid missing the tournament for the second time in three seasons.
“We are in a tight spot, there’s no doubt about that,” outfielder Alex Destino said. “This is a must-win weekend and we didn’t win so far. That’s going to put us in a tough spot. The only thing we can do is try to be optimistic and play our best baseball.”
The Gamecocks came into the weekend in dire need of a series win for the first time since the end of March, which Thursday night’s 6-3 loss made even more difficult.
The opportunities were many Friday night, as South Carolina had at least two runners on bases in each of the final six innings. But the Gamecocks could not push a run across until there were two outs in the ninth inning, when back-to-back singles scored runs and made a three-run deficit into a one-run margin.
“At the end of the day, you have to perform and you have to get a big hit or make a big pitch,” Holbrook said. “I’m not just talking about tonight. I’m talking about in baseball. We didn’t get that big hit. We pitched well enough to win with the strikeouts we had. They got a big hit when the bases were loaded. We didn’t get a big hit when people were out there. Ultimately, that was the difference.”
The Bulldogs leapt into the lead on a single swing of the bat from Keegan McGovern, who laced a three-run, bases-clearing double to right center in the fifth. All three runs were charged to starter Adam Hill, who was in the dugout watching as McGovern’s hit against reliever Josh Reagan rolled to the wall past right fielder Jacob Olson.
The Gamecocks had no such success, going 1 for 16 with runners on base and 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position though the first eight innings.
“It stinks, especially with the amount of pressure that goes into these games lately,” Destino said. “Some of it is tough luck and some of it is ourselves not executing. We have to take the blame for that.”
Row struck out with two on in the fourth. Riley Hogan grounded into a 4-6-3 double play with two on in the fifth. LT Tolbert grounded out to first with the bases loaded in the sixth — the best scoring opportunity of all in the late innings.
Olson struck out with two on in the seventh, two batters after Chad Holbrook pinch hit for Hogan and inserted Matt Williams to bunt runners to second and third. His attempt was unsuccessful and Jonah Bride was cut down at third base.
With two on again the eighth, a double play again did in the Gamecocks as Tolbert grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.
And in the ninth, Carlos Cortes and Destino both bunted for hits down the third-base line against the shift. Olson came up big for the Gamecocks with a line drive single to left to score Cortes. TJ Hopkins hit a high pop up into shallow left that fell between two defenders, scoring Destino and putting two runners in scoring position. John Jones walked to load the bases, but Row flew out and slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration.
“They battled hard in that ninth inning,” Holbrook said. “They didn’t do enough in the first eight, I think. I’m proud of them for leaving it on the field and giving ourselves a chance to win.”
South Carolina took an early 2-0 lead with runs in the second and third innings. TJ Hopkins lined a two-out single to right to score Hogan in the second, giving South Carolina the early lead.
The Gamecocks followed it up with a solid fundamental inning in the third. Row led off with a double that kept carrying all the way to the right field wall. Tolbert moved Row to third with a groundout and Bride brought Row home with a groundout to second.
The Gamecocks held the lead until the fifth, when Georgia took the lead it wouldn’t give back to the struggling Gamecocks. Georgia added runs in the late innings, a McGovern groundout plating a run in the seventh and a Row throwing error allowing another to score in the eighth.
Now, South Carolina has one final regular-season game to try and throw a last-ditch effort together to make the NCAA Tournament — an effort that will take winning games in Hoover, which South Carolina hasn’t done since 2012.
“If we keep winning, they’ll keep letting us play,” Reagan said.
But Friday night, it was just about the fact that South Carolina couldn’t come up with the big hit to avoid falling in an eighth straight SEC series for the first time in program history.
“It’s just tough. It’s been hard. It’s hard to think about when you lay in bed at night sometimes,” Destino said. “Just gotta move on. It’s part of it.”
What’s next for South Carolina baseball
South Carolina and Georgia play the series finale at 3 p.m. Sunday at Founders Park.