By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
If there is one thing South Carolina has proven in its first 16 games, it's that it can hit the long ball.
The Gamecocks, who entered Sunday's game second in the nation with 28 home runs, slugged four more on Sunday to beat Valparaiso 12-6.
Jacob Olson, who hit a walk-off home run to win Saturday's game, blasted two more Sunday, driving in five runs. TJ Hopkins hit his sixth of the season and redshirt-freshman Ian Jenkins hit the first of his career as part of a three-hit day.
Hopkins, meanwhile, became the first South Carolina player since 2015 to hit for the cycle when he lined a triple into the right-center field gap in the eighth inning. The senior center fielder homered in the fourth, doubled in the fifth, singled in the seventh and tripled in two runs in the eighth. Last week's SEC and National Player of the Week was 4-for-5 with four RBI.
The Gamecocks banged out 12 hits a day after needing two ninth-inning home runs to win Game 2.
Head coach Mark Kingston predicted his second team would have at least as much power as last year's group, but even he is surprised with 32 home runs in 16 games.
“Pleasantly surprised that what we saw has actually come to fruition, no about about it," he said Sunday. "There are so many new guys and power is usually the last thing to come for hitters. Taking quality at bats usually leads to power as guys get older and stronger. To replace everything we had last year, so far I’m pleased with the power production."
The biggest surprise Sunday was Jenkins, who went 3-for-4 with a home run and a double. After battling injuries for more than a year, he entered the lineup as the DH Saturday and Sunday and took advantage of the opportunity.
"We got him in the game yesterday and I thought he progressively got a little bitter each at-bat as he got comfortable," said Kingston, who presented him with a game ball after Sunday's game. "We wanted to get him another game today and he made the most of it."
The Gamecocks took a 4-0 lead with a barrage of home runs. Jenkins started it with his first career home run in the third, a long drive over the SC bullpen in right-center field.
“It was a great feeling," Jenkins said of the home run. "I have been through a lot and my teammates have been behind me from the start, so when the ball left my bat, I was elated. And to see my teammates congratulate me, that was amazing, a great feeling."
Carolina belted two more in the fourth — a solo shot by Hopkins and a two-run blast by Olson. Hopkins hit a one-out homer over the left-field wall and Luke Berryhill followed with a double into the left-field corner. Olson then hit a long drive onto the concourse in left-center to put the Gamecocks up 4-1.
They added another run in the fifth on a pair of doubles by Jenkins and Hopkins.
Valpo bounced back to tie it with four runs in the sixth and seventh innings. South Carolina starter Brett Kerry gave up a couple of hits and a run to start the sixth. Freshman reliever Dylan Harley then gave up a two-run home run to the first batter he faced with Blake Billinger's blast cutting the lead to 5-4.
The Crusaders tied it in the seventh when Harley walked the leadoff man, Sawyer Bridges hit a batter and Jake Kapers scored on a sac-fly.
The Gamecocks came right back, however, when Olson struck again. Hopkins started a two-out rally with a base hit in the seventh. After Berryhill walked, Olson connected for another long home run, this one also landing on the concourse in left-center. It was Olson's third home run in five at-bats and his team-leading seventh of the year. He had 12 all of last season.
Kerry, who entered the game with 9.1 scoreless innings in four relief appearances, pitched well in his first career start. He retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced, six via strikeout, until running into trouble the second time through the order. He gave up a run on three hits in the fourth before rebounding for a 1-2-3 inning in the fifth. He left the game after giving up two leadoff singles to start the sixth. He allowed three earned runs on six hits with six strikeouts.
Kingston said the freshman right-hander was "solid" in his first start.
“I thought he could have done a little bit better. Three earned runs in five innings is not quite as dominant as he was in the bullpen, so that is something we will evaluate," he said. "I thought he was solid and workman-like."
After Harley struggled, Kingston went to closer Sawyer Bridges with no outs in the seventh, but he too was shaky. He allowed a leadoff homer to Brent Jones in the eighth, and then walked two straight batters before giving way to TJ Shook. Shook, who threw 6.1 scoreless innings to beat The Citadel Tuesday, got a strikeout and double play to get out of the inning.
Bridges wound up getting the win, while Shook earned his first save with two innings of scoreless relief.
The Gamecocks, 13-3, swept Valpo and have won six of their last eight games. The travel to Charleston to play The Citadel again Tuesday before opening SEC play at home against Georgia next weekend.
“A good way to end a long streak of baseball, eight games in 10 days," Kingston said. I thought we did a really nice job finishing this thing strong, especially offensively."