By Jeff Owens | File photo by Allen Sharpe
CHARLOTTE — For three straight years, South Carolina had been pummeled by North Carolina in the neutral-site game in Charlotte, lop-sided losses that have stuck in the craw of Gamecock fans throughout the Carolinas.
Carolina finally snapped the streak Tuesday night, beating the Tar Heels 5-2 at BB&T Park in Charlotte.
This was the fourth straight meeting between the two schools and the first three did not go well for the Gamecocks, who lost the first three games by a combined score of 46-8, including an 11-3 defeat last year. South Carolina was determined to stop that streak against an ACC power and the No. 17 Tar Heels.
The Gamecocks (22-15) were sharp on the mound and at the plate in one of their most complete games of the season. Five pitchers held North Carolina to just four hits while TJ Hopkins and Andrew Eyster both hit home runs and the Gamecocks put together some clutch at-bats in an eight-hit attack.
Freshmen Daniel Lloyd pitched two scoreless innings to start the game and freshman Dylan Harley gave up two runs on just one hit over 3.1 innings to earn the win. Gage Hinson and John Gilreath also were solid out of the bullpen and Brett Kerry got the final two outs for his fourth save.
The win was big for South Carolina, which is 4-11 in the SEC and has lost five straight SEC series. It suffered a heartbreaking loss Saturday when Florida hit a three-run, walk-off home run to win Game 3.
“We played really well tonight," head coach Mark Kingston said. "After the heartbreaker this weekend, it could have gone either way. I’m really proud of this group. We prepared really well after the day off and came out and played great baseball. Great pitching, great defense, a lot of young pitchers tonight, too, and that’s good to see for now and for the future."
Though Gamecock fans were desperate for a win over the Tar Heels, Kingston, a North Carolina alum, did not care that the win came against his former team.
“Truthfully, I couldn't care less who the opponent is. Every game we play, we need to win and we want to win. The opponent, at this point, it is about us," he said. "I just want to win the next game."
The Gamecocks took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Chris Cullen walked and scored from first on a long double off the center-field wall by Brady Allen. They added a run in the third when George Callil was hit by a pitch, advanced to second on a passed ball and scored on a single up the middle by Hopkins.
The offense continued clicking in the fourth when Eyster led off the inning with his sixth home run of the season. Cullen followed with a double, advanced to third on a fly ball by Allen and scored on a sac-fly by Quinntin Perez.
Harley, meanwhile, was outstanding in relief. He struck out the side in the third and retired the first 10 batters he faced, striking out six, before running into trouble in the sixth. With one out, he walked Dylan Harris and Michael Busch followed with a long home run over the roof in right field to cut the lead to 4-2. Hinson relieved Harley to get the Gamecocks out of the inning.
Harley, who has struggled with his command most of the season, walked just one batter and stayed ahead in the count most of the night. He mixed his fastball, slider and changeup well to keep batters off balance and strike out six of the 12 batters he faced.
“The first inning, that was the first time all year I threw a first-pitch slider and it was a good pitch," he said. "After the first guy, I told myself, 'I’m not going back to how I had been throwing. I just kept a level head and kept attacking guys.”
“At the end of the day, sometimes it’s simple. You throw strikes. You throw more strikes with more pitches, you have a chance to get them out," Kingston said. "When your fastball is 89-92, like it was tonight, and you throw your slider for strikes and mix in some occasional changeups, you have a chance, and he did that tonight."
After the two-run home run by Busch, South Carolina bounced back in the seventh with Hopkins' ninth home run of the season, a 365-foot blast that landed on the pavilion beyond left field.
“That bounce-back run was really important because baseball at this level can become very momentum-based," Kingston said. "When you get up 4-0 and the other team hits a big two-run homer, it can start to feel a little bit like, 'oh boy, here we go again.' TJ getting the run back on the board for us was very, very important.”
The win was the fourth this season — and second in Charlotte — against ACC teams. The Gamecocks won two of three against rival Clemson and beat NC State 10-8 in Charlotte two weeks ago. Hopkins, a senior, had never beaten North Carolina in Charlotte.
“I don’t think anything is going to feel better than beating Clemson, but yeah, it did feel good. It felt pretty good," he said.