By Josh Hyber | Photo by Allen Sharpe
It took until the ninth try, but on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in mid-May, South Carolina finally earned an SEC series win.
A day after winnings its first SEC series opener, South Carolina (26-24, 7-19) beat Kentucky (24-26, 6-20) 11-3 in front of 6,451 fans at Founders Park. The win puts the Gamecocks one win ahead of Kentucky and Alabama — a team that fell to Texas A&M on Saturday — in a battle for the last spot in the SEC Tournament with one week to play in the regular-season.
“I’m happy that [our team] can experience a good weekend, finally,” South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston said. “They’ve been playing hard and today they got to feel what it’s like to win an SEC series.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been able to do that.”
In a game moved up an hour because of impending inclement weather, the Garnet and White overcame two deficits to beat the Wildcats.
A home run from TJ Hopkins in the third inning set the stage for home runs in the sixth from freshmen Brady Allen, to tie the game, and Wes Clarke, that gave the Gamecocks a 5-3 lead.
A Jacob Olson RBI-single, an Allen two-RBI double on a popup that Kentucky’s second baseman let drop, a Chris Cullen RBI-single followed by a Clarke RBI-double — five runs in the seventh inning — was the final dagger.
Ten runs and 11 of South Carolina’s 13 hits came with two outs, including all three home runs.
“We got rewarded for a good approach,” Kingston said.
South Carolina starting pitcher Reid Morgan had eight strikeouts — his most in SEC play — and allowed three runs on five hits in six innings. Freshman Brett Kerry retired nine of 10 batters — with five strikeouts — to end the game.
“It was great to see the seniors (Cullen, Hopkins and Olson) on Senior Day all have an impact on that win,” Kingston said.
“It’s huge. Huge for our confidence, huge for our momentum going forward,” Cullen said. “You know, things haven’t been going our way as of late, but these past two nights we’ve come out with one goal in mind, and that’s to put it all together and win some ballgames.”
But it was Kentucky that took an early lead.
Ryan Johnson smoked the second pitch of the game for a single up the middle and advanced to third after a sacrifice bunt and groundout. He then scored on a two-out line drive single from Coltyn Kessler that Hopkins dove straight-on for and just missed.
But Morgan kept South Carolina within striking distance all afternoon.
The right-hander struck out Kentucky’s Ryan Shinn looking on a 3-2 pitch to end the first inning and Dalton Reed to end a 1-2-3 second.
South Carolina shortstop Noah Campbell committed two errors in the top of the third (one throwing, one fielding), but Morgan got Kessler to strike out swinging to end the inning with runners on second and third.
Campbell amended for the sloppy defense by breaking up Kentucky starter Dillon Marsh’s no-hitter with two outs in the bottom of the inning. That brought up Hopkins, who made it count by obliterating a 2-2 offering and sending it 10 rows deep into the left-field bleachers to give the Gamecocks a 2-1 lead.
Morgan struck out Cam Hill for his sixth strikeout of the day in the fifth inning, but Kentucky’s Elliott Curtis smoked a single through the right side to score two to give the Wildcats a 3-2 lead.
But the lead did not hold for long. An inning later, Allen crushed his home run into the left field seats to tie the score at 3.
“Just trying to put the barrel on the ball,” Allen said. “It ended up going out.
“And then our luck started to change.”
Clarke then joined in on the fun. After a Cullen single, Clarke hit his home run to the staircase in deep left-center to give the home team a 5-3 lead.
With the win, South Carolina made sure it would not be the first team to go 0-10 in SEC series since the league went to a 30-game schedule in 1996.
“Every game matters. We’ve got four SEC games left out of the 30 and we’ve got to try to win every one,” Kingston said.
“We’re just focused on one goal, and that’s tomorrow and going for a sweep,” Morgan said. “[That will] get us into the talk for getting into the SEC Tournament.
“That’s our number one goal right now.”