By Jeff Owens | File photo by Jenny Dilworth
After suffering a heartbreaking loss on a series-clinching, walk-off home run at Florida Saturday, South Carolina players and coaches endured a long, quiet bus ride home.
But it wasn’t the type of discouraging, self-loathing experience that can wreck a team.
“It wasn’t feel sorry for yourself, it was, ’hey, it really stunk how that ended, let’s get back to work,’” head coach Mark Kingston said.
After a day off Sunday, the Gamecocks got back to work with a light workout on Monday, and then bounced back with a big win against No. 17 North Carolina Tuesday night in Charlotte.
While the devastating loss to Florida handed South Carolina its fifth straight series loss in the SEC and seriously damaged its postseason hopes, the 5-2 win over North Carolina could rejuvenate the Gamecocks and spark the type of turnaround that led them to the postseason last year.
“This team doesn’t have any quit in it, and that’s going to pay its dues as this season goes along,” said senior TJ Hopkins, who hit his ninth home run and had two RBI Tuesday. “It was a tough series [at Florida]. We were two seconds away from winning that series, so any win after that, bouncing back in a Tuesday game, it’s great for the team.”
South Carolina started the season 14-3 and are 18-4 in non-conference games, including four wins over ACC powers Clemson, NC State and North Carolina. But the Gamecocks have struggled badly in the SEC, starting 4-11 and losing its first five series. Two of the series losses came to No. 5 Georgia and No. 25 Tennessee, while Auburn and Florida had been ranked.
The non-conference wins over No. 9 NC State, No. 17 North Carolina and No. 24 Clemson show the strength of the SEC, Kingston said.
“The SEC has been a bear for us this year and we have been pretty successful outside the SEC, so it speaks to how strong the SEC is,” he said.
The Gamecocks played the type of baseball against North Carolina that it will need to turn things around and contend for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. They hit two home runs, stole two bases and banged out eight hits while playing flawless defense in the field. Perhaps most importantly, it got outstanding pitching from three key, young pitchers.
Freshman Daniel Lloyd started the game and pitched two scoreless innings before handing the ball to Dylan Harley, another true freshman. Harley, who started the season in the weekend rotation but moved to the bullpen after struggling, had his best outing of the season, allowing just one hit and striking out six in 3.1 innings to earn his second win.
Sophomore John Gilreath pitched 2.1 scoreless innings, striking out four, before Brett Kerry, another freshman, got the final two outs for his fourth save.
“Our young pitching stepped up, our defense was flawless and we hit for power, but we also manufactured some stuff on the bases too,” Kingston said. “It was definitely a complete win and the type of baseball we need to play.”
It gets no easier this weekend as the Gamecocks host No. 7 Texas A&M in a three-game series Thursday-Saturday. The Aggies (27-11-1, 9-5-1) have one of the best pitching staffs in the SEC with a team ERA of 2.88 (3rd in the SEC). They are led by two aces — Asa Lacy (1.69 ERA, 83 Ks) and John Doxakis (1.76, 63 Ks).
“They are a good team coming in, two of the best left-handed pitchers in the country,” Kingston said. “It doesn’t get any easier, but at least it shows these kids that if you play baseball the right way, you have a chance to win. We need good pitching, we need our pitching to be as good as it was tonight, and our hitters need to be opportunistic and our defense needs to be airtight.”