By Josh Hyber | File photo by Allen Sharpe
Update (6:38 p.m.): South Carolina will play Bethune-Cookman (26-30) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in a win or go home game. If South Carolina wins, it will play 30 minutes after the conclusion of the game against the loser of Florida State and South Florida. That game will take place Saturday at noon.
TALLHASSEE, Fla. — South Carolina reached Super Regionals last season on the backs of its dominant pitching staff. Cayla Drotar, Kelsey Oh and Dixie Raley went a combined 49-17 with a 2.10 ERA and held hitters to a .215 average.
All three hurlers pitched Friday afternoon in the team’s 2019 NCAA regional opener against South Florida, but had much different results.
Because of it, the Gamecocks are one loss away from ending its 2019 season.
South Carolina (36-18) struggled in the circle and fell to the Bulls (41-17) 3-2 at JoAnne Graf Field. The Gamecocks will play the loser of Friday’s matchup between Florida State (51-8) and Bethune-Cookman (26-29) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
“The reason they struggled today was the patience of our hitters,” South Florida head coach Ken Eriksen said. “How many [players] in the SEC chase their riseballs because they’re riseball hitters? We’re not. We really train low in the zone quite a bit, so Oh would have a little bit of a struggle with us. And we sat on the plate with Drotar more than probably other people do.
“All three are good. We just happened to be better today.”
Eriksen added he was “really surprised” Gamecock pitchers didn’t pound the zone and said USF starter Georgina Corrick was, “better than their three.”
South Carolina had just four hits, including RBI doubles from Kennedy Clark and Mackenzie Boesel.
“Certainly that’s not the way we wanted to come out and play today,” South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith said. “I think, in all facets of the game, we weren’t sharp, and I don’t think you can expect to win at this level against a team as talented as USF if you’re not playing your best ball.”
Corrick, who the Gamecocks did not face in their 8-1 win over the Bulls in March, threw 11 strikeouts and walked just one in a complete-game performance.
Oh walked four of South Florida’s first five batters and was pulled for Drotar after recording just one out.
The sophomore — who had a less-than-stellar regular season (5-5, 3.63 ERA) after having a sensational freshman campaign (14-5, 1.92 ERA) — walked leadoff hitter AnaMarie Bruni on four pitches and, after two-hole hitter Meghan Sheehan reached second on a passed ball, walked three-hole hitter Lindsey Devitt.
Smith went to the circle to settle down her pitcher, but the delay was only a short respite before more damage.
Oh then proceeded to walk Bethaney Keen and Macy Cook. The first loaded the bases, the second brought in the game’s first run.
It was the last batter Oh — who threw 27 pitches, 18 of which were balls — faced.
“I think Kelsey Oh, for us, normally has worked her way out of those situations,” Smith said. “I just really feel like these are going to be low scoring ballgames and we couldn’t afford any free passes. That’s why I made the quick change to [Cayla].”
“I’m really proud of the way our first five, six hitters came to play with a lot of patience and made Oh work a little bit,” Eriksen said. “We didn’t jump on anything bad and that set the tone early.”
Drotar — who was scheduled to pitch in relief, albeit later in the game — came on and did her job, coaxing two outs of four pitches — the first a grounder to third baseman Jana Johns, who threw home for the force out — to retire the side.
South Carolina responded in the bottom half of the frame, when Boesel, who walked to leadoff, scored on the Clark double.
“[Mackenzie] started off the game with a great at-bat … and I had to come up and get a run for my teammates,” Clark said.
South Florida third baseman Tayli Filla singled to lead off the top of the second inning and advanced to third when a pickoff attempt from Gamecock catcher Jordan Fabian hit the first base bag and bounced into right field. Again Drotar prevented further damage, getting a pop out, strikeout and groundout to end the inning.
But South Florida kept coming.
Devitt led off the top of the third with a double down the left field line and scored three batters later on an RBI-flyout from Bulls’ second baseman Kelsey Lay.
An inning later, Drotar hit nine-hole hitter Riley Gore before allowing back-to-back singles to Bruni and Sheehan.
Raley, who has been South Carolina’s most consistent pitcher this season, then entered. The senior struck out Devitt but walked Keen to bring home the Bulls’ third run.
But the Gamecocks never let up.
Haley Simpson ripped a two-out single in the bottom of the fifth inning and then scored on a Boesel double.
But it was too little, too late.
“We saw what we needed to go,” Eriksen said. “We knew that our hitters would be OK against their pitching. It was just a matter of if our staff could stop their hitting. Because they can swing it.
“… Today the Bulls were better than the Gamecocks.”
Said Smith, “We understand now that we’ll be fighting for our lives. … Please rest assured that the Gamecocks will come back fighting tomorrow.”