By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina knew it was facing an uphill battle Sunday against one of the best pitchers in the country.
The Gamecocks managed just three hits off Kentucky ace Zack Thompson and didn't help themselves with mistakes on the mound and in the field in a 6-2 loss.
South Carolina, which won Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Saturday to clinch its first SEC series of the season, fell to 26-25 on the season and 7-20 in the SEC. Still in a battle to make the 12-team SEC Tournament, the Gamecocks finish the regular season at No. 6 Mississippi State next weekend. Kentucky (25-26 overall) is also 7-20 in the SEC, while Alabama was 7-19 entering its Sunday game against Texas A&M. Two of the three will not make make the conference tournament.
"Disappointed today but glad we won the series," head coach Mark Kingston said. “It was nice that we actually won a series."
Next weekend's series in Starksville will likely determine whether the Gamecocks make the conference tournament to keep their slim postseason hopes alive.
“We just have to keep that momentum going," senior Jacob Olson said. "Next weekend is huge for us. [The postseason is] everything you work for. Everything up to this point in the season, it’s all on the line. We’re going into a hostile environment and we just have to bring it."
Thompson entered the game with a 2.08 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 78 innings. He made quick work of the Gamecocks in the first two innings, retiriing the first six batters he faced. He allowed just one infield hit until South Carolina scored a run on two hits in the sixth. Thompson allowed just three hits and struck out eight in six innings.
Kingston said his team's hitting was "not bad, considering as much as he’s dominated all year."
"Compared to most teams, we were a little bit better than average against him," he said.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, struggled on the mound and in the field. With a thin bullpen due to injuries, they leaned on freshmen Daniel Lloyd, Dylan Harley and Wesley Sweatt. The combined to allow 11 hits, four walks, two hit batters and two wild pitches. The defense did them no favors, committing two errors and failing to make other critical plays.
Kentucky took an early 1-0 lead in the first on back-to-back two-out doubles by Elliott Curtis and Coltyn Kessler.
The Gamecocks manufactured a run in the third to tie it. Chris Cullen was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and Jonah Beamon laid down a perfect bunt to get him to second. Nick Neville then moved him to third and reached base on an infield hit on a nice drag bunt. Cullen scored on a groundout by TJ Hopkins.
They fell behind again in the fourth, however, when the pitching and defense made key mistakes. Lloyd, who pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the third, walked the leadoff batter to start the inning. Reliever Dylan Harley then gave up a single to right and threw a wild pitch to put runners at second and third. Marshall Gei then hit a bouncer to first to Cullen, who might have had a play at the plate but bobbled the ball and instead had to tag the runner at first for the first out.
Beamon then made an error at second when his throw to first was wide and pulled Cullen off the bag, putting another runner at third with one out. Kentucky scored its third run on a squeeze bunt by Cam Hill.
The struggles continued in the fifth when Harley walked the leadoff man and he scored on an infield hit and an RBI double. A similar scenario led to another run in the sixth when Harley hit the first batter of the inning and he scored after a sac-bunt, an infield hit and a groundout. Another run scored on a single to right to give Kentucky a 6-1 lead.
Kingston said his defense played "poorly."
"Guys had a chance to make plays and they just didn’t," he said.
Sweatt relieved Harley to get the final out of the sixth and then gave the Gamecocks solid innings in the seventh and eighth, allowing just two hits. The three freshmen allowed five earned runs on 11 hits and four walks.
“They all competed. Wes was probably the best. That’s a good sign," Kingston said. "We need consistency out of those freshmen so we know what we are going to get out of them."
South Carolina scored a run in the bottom of the sixth on a leadoff single by Hopkins and a two-out double by Jacob Olson. Hopkins then saved a run in the top of the seventh when he threw out a runner at the plate from center field.
But the Gamecocks could generate little offense even with Thompson out of the game. They had runners on base in the seventh and eighth but could not score and didn't have a hit after the sixth inning. They struck out 10 times.
The Gamecocks played without starting second baseman Noah Campbell and shortstop George Callil, both out with injuries. Kingston said he hopes to get them back next week.
South Carolina hosts USC Upstate in its final home game of the season Tuesday.