By Brandon Alter | File photo by Allen Sharpe
The backbone of South Carolina’s team is the pitching staff. Coming into Saturday, the staff had a combined 3.14 ERA.
Dixie Raley lowered that number Saturday with a dominant performance in the circle.
Raley’s performance, plus timely hitting gave, the No. 17 Gamecocks (27-11, 4-9 SEC) a 5-1 win over No. 4 Alabama ( 38-3, 8-3 SEC), setting up a rubber match Sunday.
“I’m just really proud of my team,” South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith said. “As I [said last night], we didn’t play the way we wanted to last night. I liked [our] response. I think that’s big. When you can stand up in these moments and respond and I thought we did that today.”
The biggest response was on defense as the Gamecocks went from allowing nine runs Friday to just one. Raley went all seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits with two strikeouts and four walks. Offensively, Mackenzie Boesel led the way, going 2-for-four with a double and home run with two RBI. Lauren Stewart also had a good game at the plate, going 2-for-3 with two RBI. Jana Johns also went 2-for-2 two with a walk.
“I think she threw a good mix. Her curveball is her go-to pitch, and she was throwing that well on both sides of the plate,” Smith said of what went well for Raley. “And she did a good job keeping a tough Alabama offense off balance with the change-up.”
“Definitely my change-up,” Raley said when asked what worked. “It definitely helped me mix in my other pitches. It kind of kept [Alabama] off balance.”
Raley’s performance kept Smith in the dugout for most of the game, as she hardly made a trip to the circle.
“I felt like she was in command the whole game,” Smith said. “There wasn’t a moment where I felt momentum was shifting, or I needed to — sometimes I take timeouts just to give [pitchers] some extra time — I felt like she was in a good rhythm and I was just trying not to mess her up.”
Boesel — who had been the team’s two-hole hitter for most of the season — led the game off with a double. Kenzi Maguire then moved her over with a sac bunt. Cayla Drotar would then single her home after a Johns walk.
“I think Mackenzie Boesel was big tonight. She set the tone for the game early with a lead-off double. She comes up big with the home run.”
The home run came in the fifth inning to blow the game open. Madison Owens hit the first pitch of the inning back up the middle to bring up Boesel. Boesel was down 3-1 in the count after two fouls balls before battling back to a full count. She then smacked the next pitch over the center field wall to give the Gamecocks a 4-0 lead.
“I saw up in the zone, and right in my hit zone,” Boesel said of the pitch. “I went for it and [it] got out.”
Since moving Boesel to the leadoff spot, the Gamecocks have averaged just under five runs per game.
The Gamecocks would tack on another run, an RBI single from Stewart, to give Raley some breathing room.
“That was a tone-setter for the offense. That was huge,” Raley said of the run support. “That let me settle in and relax and hit my spots.”
Raley would allow a leadoff home run in the sixth, but she shut the door, giving the Gamecocks a big victory. With the win, the Gamecocks have will have at least two top-five wins for the second year in a row.
However, the work is not done. The Gamecocks have yet to win an SEC series this season, but know if they play like they did Saturday, they should take the series.
“Do the exact same thing we did tonight,” Boesel said. “Come out attacking hard and [have] lights-out pitching and defense like we did tonight.”
“A lot of what you saw today. We made a lot of god defensive plays. We got to keep attacking at the plate,” Smith said. “We got to put runs on the board. Got to have a good pitching performance.
“It’s ‘all hands-on deck’ on Sundays. You got to be ready to come out and swing the bats on Sundays. … We got to come out and compete.”
The rubber match is scheduled for 1 p.m. on SECN+.