**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
South Carolina has dealt with some tough breaks in recent weeks, from nagging injuries to some bizarre plays on the field.
But perhaps the worst break of the season might have come on March 4, when closer Tyler Johnson left the game against Clemson with a sore arm.
Johnson, who has missed the last 20 games as he tries to work his way back, was not just South Carolina's closer. He is a dominant closer and one of the top pitchers in the country.
With a collection of arms in the bullpen, the Gamecocks were able to survive for a while without him. But he has been sorely missed the last two weeks in SEC play.
South Carolina has blown two ninth-inning leads in the last week in games that could have won the series against Auburn and Vanderbilt.
On Sunday, Josh Reagan, who shared the closer role with Johnson last year, gave up a three-run, walk-off home run in Game 3 against Auburn.
Thursday, South Carolina rode a magnificent performance by starter Clarke Schmidt to take a 3-2 lead into the ninth. Reagan got two outs in the eighth before giving way to Colie Bowers. Bowers gave up a leadoff walk in the ninth and Vanderbilt bunted the runner to second. Bowers got the second out, but then gave up an RBI single that tied the game.
Bowers, who entered the game with a team-best ERA of 0.51, was outstanding during the rest of his four-inning stint. But Reed Scott gave up a single and a two-run homer to Julian Infante in the 13th inning that proved to be the difference.
It marked the third time this season — and the second time this week — that South Carolina lost after being one out away from winning the game, and possibly the series. It has lost its last three SEC games by a total of four runs and has six one-run losses.
"It was a tough loss," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "Piggy-backing last night's loss and Sunday's loss at Auburn, they are hard to take when you are so close to winning them. We've got to find a way to get over that hump and get that 27th out."
No one felt worse Thursday than Schmidt, who was spectacular, giving up just two runs on six hits and struck out 11 in seven innings. It marked his second straight dominant outing after a shutout last weekend at Auburn.
"It's a gut-wrenching loss, for everyone," Schmidt said. "If you pitched today or played today or not played, even the fans, anyone who supports this team, it's obviously a gut-wrenching loss. But we've got to wipe it and come back tomorrow and get a win out of this."
Had South Carolina had Johnson, who has an overpowering fastball that touches the high-90s, it might have won the two games the bullpen blew against Auburn and Vanderbilt, giving it a chance to win both series.
Instead, with Thursday's loss, it fell to 6-5 in the conference and 20-10 overall.
Holbrook hopes to have Johnson back next weekend against Mississippi State. They need him back quickly.