By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
After struggling against Georgia pitching and blowing Game 2 on Saturday, South Carolina desperately needed a strong pitching performance on Sunday.
It got it from TJ Shook and Brett Kerry, who combined to hurl eight scoreless innings until the Bulldogs rallied in the ninth.
The Gamecocks squandered the opportunity, however, giving up four runs in the ninth in a 4-2 loss that gave Georgia a series sweep to open SEC play. It marked the second straight season that South Carolina has been swept by Georgia.
South Carolina carried a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning before Georgia tagged Kerry for three hits and Tucker Maxwell hit a three-run home run off Gamecock closer Sawyer Bridges.
“Sometimes baseball can be a cruel game and today was one of those days for us," South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston said. "We’ve got to wear it, we’ve got to learn from it and we’ve got to move on just like we did last year."
Shook got off to a horrendous start, walking two of the first three batters he faced and hitting the other to load the bases. He made an amazing recovery, however, getting two popups to short and striking out a batter to end the inning. He then struck out the side in the second and cruised through the next two innings, allowing no hits and just two baserunners. He left after giving up a leadoff double in the fifth for Georgia's first hit. He struck out six and extended his scoreless innings streak to 12.1 innings.
Kerry got a flyout and two strikeouts to strand the Georgia runner in the fifth, and then breezed through the next three innings. Kerry did not allow a hit and only one baserunner until a leadoff double by Mason Meadows in the top of the ninth.
Georgia (18-2, 3-0) countered with big right-hander Tony Locey, who was dominant through seven innings. Locey allowed just one run on three hits and struck out 11.
The Gamecocks finally broke through against Locey in the fifth inning. Chris Cullen led off with a single and moved to second on an error by the Georgia second baseman. After Ian Jenkins walked, George Callil smacked a line drive to right but it was caught and Cullen was thrown out at the plate trying to tag from third. With the opportunity seemingly squandered, Quinntin Perez slapped the next pitch into center field to score Brady Allen from second and give South Carolina a 1-0 lead.
South Carolina (14-6, 0-3) managed just one more baserunner until Perez led off the eighth with a sharp single to right. He was promptly caught stealing, however, and the Gamecocks went down in order.
Kinston left Kerry in the game to start the ninth and Meadows greeted him with a leadoff double down the third-base line. John Cable then lined a single to right to drive in the tying run. With runners at first and third, South Carolina went to Bridges, who served up a three-run home run to Tucker Maxwell to give Georgia a 4-1 lead.
With a runner at third, Maxwell tried twice to get down a bunt on a safety squeeze before drilling a pitch just inside the right-field foul pole.
“They didn’t think he was going to hit a three-run homer, that’s why they tried the safety," Kingston said. "It was just one of those flukey things. It was a bad pitch, but it was just one of those things. They were trying to safety squeeze and take one run there, they sure didn’t think he would hit a three-run homer. We just made a bad pitch and he snuck it around the pole.”
Jacob Olson homered in the ninth to cut the lead to 4-2 and the Gamecocks had the tying run at the plate but Ian Jenkins struck out to end the game.
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow for South Carolina, which struck out 15 times in a 6-1 loss in Game 1 and blew a 5-1 lead on Saturday with three errors and a series of defensive miscues that handed Georgia an 8-7 win. Except for four home runs, the Gamecocks struggled offensively against Georgia, managing just five hits Sunday and only 17 in the three games. They struck out 40 times against eight different Georgia pitchers.
"Our defense played very well, obviously we pitched really, really well. We just have to put it all together," Kingston said. "I told our hitters this is big-boy baseball in terms of the pitching they faced and they got a really good lesson on how to make adjustments this weekend."
Kingston and his team took solace in the fact that it could have won two of the three games against one of the best teams in the country. The Gamecocks started 1-5 in the SEC last season before winning 16 of their next 24 conference games and advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals.
“We could have won two of those three games. Our guys to need to understand that," he said. "They are a top-10 team in the country and probably an Omaha contender and we’re that close to winning two out of three games. We just need to understand this is not a death blow to our season."
The Gamecocks travel to Greenville Tuesday to play Furman at Fluor Field before heading to Knoxville for a three-game series against Tennessee next weekend.