By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina picked up a much-needed win Tuesday night, beating Charlotte 5-4 at Founders Park, but the most significant development occurred in a single, quick sixth inning.
That's when closer Sawyer Bridges entered the game for the first time in two weeks and blew away three of the four batters he faced.
Bridges, who has been battling a sore shoulder all season and had been used sparingly in recent weeks, was dominant. He struck out the first two batters with fastballs clocked at 92 and 93 mph, faster speeds than he had been throwing early in the season. After giving up a two-out double, he fanned the next batter to strike out the side.
“That was by far his best outing of the year. That’s something we have got to have," head coach Mark Kingston said. "To me that was the highlight of the night. The win was great, we did a lot of good things, but without question that was the highlight of the night seeing that that is still in there. Every time we have put him out there that’s what we were hoping to see. That’s as good as he’s been by far this year."
Bridges, who has just one save and entered the game with a 5.91 ERA in 10.2 innings, picked up his second win of the season.
South Carolina improved to 20-13 heading into a key SEC series Thursday-Saturday at Florida. The Gamecocks are 3-9 in the SEC and have lost four straight conference series. If they are to get back in the SEC race and contend for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, Bridges could play a big role in a thin, injury-riddled bullpen.
Bridges, who has had shoulder problems since high school, was dominant as a closer last season, compiling a 1.35 ERA in 21 appearances and getting huge outs during the second-half run to the postseason. But he has struggled this season. With his velocity down, he gave up three late-inning home runs early in the season and gave up a hit and a run in his last outing at Tennesee on March 24.
Bridges said he had no hint entering the game that his velocity would be up.
"The second pitch in I looked up and it was 88 and I was like, 'dang, I got like way more than that, I wonder if I could let one rip here,'" he said. "I did and the guy swung through it so I knew I was getting it up there."
It was one of the few times this year he has felt good on the mound. With a heavily damaged shoulder that forced him to change his throwing motion prior to last season, it's a constant battle for him pitch as effectively as he has throughout most of his career.
“I can say it’s not fair, but it’s just the hand I was dealt with," he said. "… The level of effort and what I bring to the mound is the same. Even when I was 80-83 earlier in the season, and then when I hit 93 tonight, that part is really frustrating. But I have been successful at managing that in the past. Last year I did it. It’s just a matter of me getting guys out if my arm feels good or it doesn’t feel good. It’s just the hand I was dealt with, you have to deal with it."
He admits the early-season struggles got to him a bit, and he was happy to finally return to form.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t get to me," he said. "Some days you have it, some days you don’t. Some days in the bullpen I have it, and then the next day it just feels weird. I’m just happy every time I’m out there and I love this group of guys and just glad we got the win.
"… It’s just nice not to screw up a game for us, honestly. Just happy I was able to hold up my end for tonight and I need to do that going forward.”
The Gamecocks had just one hit in the first four innings and trailed 3-1 when they got the bats going in the fifth. Andrew Eyster started the rally with a leadoff single and Brady Allen followed with a walk. After Chris Cullen bunted them to second and third, Jonah Beamon knocked in Eyster with a single for his first career RBI. Noah Campbell drove in Allen with an RBI single to tie it.
They took the lead in the sixth on a solo home run by Eyster and added a run in the seventh when Campbell drove a ball into the left-center field gap for a triple and scored on George Callil's sac-fly.
Carolina, which had just seven hits, took an early 1-0 lead on Allen's RBI single in the second, but gave it right back in the top of the third. Dylan Harley, who replaced starter TJ Shook, gave up a leadoff single and a walk to start the inning and the run scored on a wild pitch.
The 49ers took a 2-1 lead on Tommy Bullock's solo home run off Harley. They added another run in the fifth on a two-out single by Todd Elwood and a double by Harris Yett.
Shook started the game for South Carolina and threw two scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out two. Harley labored through three innings, giving up three runs on four hits and a walk before giving way to Bridges in the sixth. John Gilreath pitched a scoreless seventh and eighth before Wesley Sweatt pitched the ninth to earn his first save.
Kingston was pleased with his team, which bounced back after losing two of three at Alabama over the weekend.
“Just a good workman-like win for us tonight," he said. "We had to do a lot of things to win that game. Charlotte played pretty well and I was happy with a lot of what I saw tonight. Just good, old-fashioned baseball in terms of old-school execution and trying to manufacture some stuff. If that’s what we have to be, that’s what we have to be.”