By Jeff Owens | File photo by Allen Sharpe
Locked in a 4-4 tie in a must-win game, South Carolina needed someone to step up and provide a spark late Friday night at Founders Park.
Andrew Eyster, the Gamecocks' hottest hitter of late, took charge, blasting a solo home run in the seventh inning to give Carolina a 5-4 lead. Dylan Harley and Brett Kerry did the rest, shutting down Kentucky in the eighth and ninth to lock down the victory.
The win snapped a seven-game losing streak in the SEC for South Carolina, which improved to 25-24 overall and 6-19 in the conference. The win pulls them into a tie with Kentucky in the race for one of the final two spots in the SEC Tournament May 21-26.
It marked the first time this season that South Carolina has won Game 1 of an SEC series. They will try to take the series in Game 2 Saturday at 11 a.m.
“I'm just more happy for those kids," head coach Mark Kingston said. "They work hard and have done what we asked. I’m just happy they could have a happy locker room tonight. I’m glad they are able to relax a little bit and enjoy that locker room."
Despite a depleted pitching staff, the Gamecocks got solid pitching from starter Cam Tringali followed by Harley and Kerry out of the bullpen. Tringali, who started the season in the bullpen, threw a season-high 107 pitches over 5.2 innings. He allowed four runs on five hits and struck out four. Harley struck out three in 2.1 scoreless innings and Kerry got the final three outs for his sixth save of the season.
“That’s how you write it up," Kingston said. "You get five-plus innings out of your starter, your middle guy comes in and gives you two-plus and then your closer comes in and gives you three quality outs. That’s how you draw it up. It hasn’t been that way very often for us this year. But you’re looking at freshman, freshman, freshman. That’s why we’re optimistic moving forward. On a Friday night, three freshmen won a game for us."
Kentucky took an early lead when Ryan Johnson reached on a leadoff double off Tringali and scored on consecutive flyouts. South Carolina threatened in the bottom of the first, but Brady Allen flew out with the bases loaded to end the inning.
The Gamecocks tied in the third on Noah Campbell's sixth home run of the season, a drive over the left-field wall. They took the lead in the fourth on another big hit. Jacob Olson reached on a throwing error and scored when Allen launched a drive to the left-center field wall for a triple. Allen scored on a wild pitch to put South Carolina up 3-1.
Tringali pitched out of jams in each of the first three innings and appeared to be settling down when he tossed a 1-2-3 fourth. But he ran into trouble in the fifth. After retiring the first two batters, he walked Elliott Curtis and hit Coltyn Kessler. After a wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position, Ryan Shinn delivered a two-run single to tie it. T.J. Collett then drove in Shinn to give Kentucky a 4-3 lead.
The Gamecocks manufactured a run in the sixth to tie it. Allen walked to lead off the inning and hustled to third on a base hit to left by DH Wes Clarke. Allen slid into home on a perfect squeeze bunt by Jonah Beamon.
“It was a perfect matchup," Kingston said of the safety squeeze call. "In terms of first and third, that’s the perfect time for the safety squeeze. Decent speed at this base and Jonah executed it perfectly."
Beamon, a freshman who has played sparingly this season, also gave the Gamecocks a big lift. With shortstop George Callil hurt, Campbell moved to shortstop and Beamon started at second. He had a hit and an RBI on the squeeze play and recorded the 26th out of the game on an outstanding back-handed stop in the hole at second, a play that drew a huge reponse from the South Carolina dugout.
"Jonah Beamon has worked hard and he’s a popular guy on this team because he works hard and respects the game and he shows up every day," Kingston said. "The reason we played him was just to get a look, to see if he could give us a spark. … It was nice to see Jonah have a nice night for us."
Eyster strode to the plate with the game on the line in the seventh and belted a leadoff home run that landed in the big grandstand in left field, continuing his hot streak of late.
"He didn’t really have an overpowering fastball and he kinda had a vertical slider and he hung it," Eyster said. "He did that before, kinda hung it a couple of times, so I was kinda looking for that. I figured I was getting another one. I saw it up and hit it hard.”
"He’s hit his stride," Kingston said of Eyster, who was 2-for-4. "We have almost looked at him as a freshman this year because he only had one year of junior college and sometimes it just takes some time to hit his stride. He has clearly hit his stride and is hitting like we know he can.”
The win keeps South Carolina's hopes alive for a late-season rally to make the SEC Tournament and put the team in position to win their first SEC series of the season.
“It’s definitely a morale booster, especially to get that first Friday win," Eyster said. "We’d be lying to ourselves if we said we’re not in it still but it’s not going to be easy. We just have to keep winning and do what we did tonight. There is always a chance of making it to the tournament and who knows what happens there. It’s definitely a confidence booster for us."
“I think it shows what this team is about," Tringali said. "We have been down late a bunch of times this year with three innings left and the way our season has been going it would have been real easy to just roll over and say here we go again. But we had guys like Dylan come in and pitch great and Kerry slammed the door and guys like Eyster showed up at the plate battling."
Kingston thanked the fans for supporting his team with a crowd of more than 5,400 on a Friday night late in the season.
“Thanks to the fans. They were loud and they were into it," he said. "They could have very easily not shown up tonight and they did and gave that team a lift."