By Jeff Owens | File photo by Jenny Dilworth
For six innings Thursday night, South Carolina was on the verge of upsetting No. 9 Texas A&M and beating one of the best starting pitchers in the SEC.
With ace Reid Morgan on the mound, it looked like things might finally go South Carolina's way in Game 1 of a key SEC series.
Then the Aggies got to Morgan and struck for seven runs in the seventh inning to take an 8-2 lead and put the game away.
“One inning got us again tonight," head coach Mark Kingston said. "When you have a chance to win late, you need to try to finish and find a way to do it. Seventh inning, not good. We have got to learn what we need to learn and move on."
With the 8-2 loss, the Gamecocks fell to 22-16 and 4-12 in the SEC. They must bounce back and win Games 2 and 3 to prevent thier sixth straight series loss in conference play.
This one turned into a pitchers duel early with Morgan matching Texas A&M ace John Doxakis frame for frame. Morgan pitched out of jams in the first four innings to keep his team in the game and give the Gamecocks a chance to take the lead.
Texas A&M scratched out a run in the second on two hits and a lucky break. Zach DeLoach lined a hit down the left-field line that hit the wall jutting out in foul territory. Left-fielder Brady Allen had trouble fielding the carom and was charged with an error when DeLoach wound up at third. Ty Coleman then poked a single past Chris Cullen at first to drive in DeLoach and give the Aggies a 1-0 lead.
The Gamecocks took the lead in the third on two clutch hits by George Callil and TJ Hopkins. Cullen led off the inning with a bloop single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Callil then lined a single to right to knock in Cullen and tie the game. Callil went to second on the throw to the plate and Hopkins drove him in with a well-placed single down the right-field line.
Morgan, meanwhile, was sharp early, striking out seven and stranding three runners in scoring position. He got stronger in the middle of the game, hurling his first 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth before running into trouble in the seventh.
DeLoach started the Aggie rally with a leadoff single. After a sac-bunt, Aaron Walters hit a double into the gap in left-center to tie the game. Hunter Watson followed with an RBI single to give A&M the lead and knock Morgan out of the game.
John Gilreath replaced Morgan with one out in the seventh and Bryce Blaum greeted him with another RBI single to push the lead to 4-2. With two out, Gilreath walked two batters to load the bases and Texas A&M blew it open on a grand slam by Logan Foster.
Gilreath was coming off a solid relief outing against North Carolina Tuesday but struggled with his command. He gave up four earned runs on two hits and three walks in just two-thirds of an inning.
A week after giving up seven runs in a rough outing at Florida, Morgan (3-3) bounced back with a solid performance in his second Game 1 start. He allowed three earned runs on eight hits and struck out seven. He retired nine straight batters at one point and threw just 74 pitches through six innings. He trailed just 3-2 when he left the game.
“My confidence was up, I just left pitches in the middle and they put good swings on it," Morgan said of his seventh-inning struggles. "I have to be better later in games and not put pressure on my team."
“They had a bunch of lefties up there and he kept throwing balls in the middle of the plate," Kingston said. "His location was really good most of the night but in that seventh inning all of a sudden he was really finding the middle of the plate. Sometimes that happens. … He was at 82 pitches, but for whatever reason, he lost his command that inning."
Doxakis was outstanding for Texas A&M, giving up just two runs on four hits and striking out eight.
“We have got to be able to match up with Friday-night starters in this league and Reid did a really good job tonight, but their guy was even better," Kingston said. "Friday night in the SEC is all about having future first-round draft picks and guys who are the best in the business. Reid battled him for close to seven innings pitch for pitch, but at the end, he got the best of us."
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, continued to struggle offensively, managing just five hits. They had just one baserunner after the third inning until Luke Berryhill doubled to lead off the ninth. After A&M's seven-run rally in the seventh, South Carolina batters struck out three times in the bottom of the inning and had 12 strikeouts in the game.
They had a chance to blow the game open after taking the lead in the third, but left the bases loaded when Andrew Eyster grounded out.
"We had a really good inning going there and you felt really good about the momentum of the game at that point, and it ended with a groundout and took a little bit of steam out of us," Kingston said. "We still had six innings to play at that point, but them getting out of that and minimizing the damage ended up being very positive for them."
The Gamecocks have now lost Game 1 in all six SEC series this season, getting outscored 51-15 in those games. They have won Game 2 in three of the five previous series and will try to continue that trend Friday or Saturday.
“No matter how many times it doesn’t go our way, you have to be ready to play tomorrow," Kingston said. "We have taken a lot of body blows but we are not going to get down. We are going to keep fighting and try to come out tomorrow and win a baseball game.”
Game 2 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday night, weather permitting. If the game is rained out, the two teams would attempt a doubleheader on Saturday.