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February 28, 2012
With the rivalry series with Clemson on the horizon, Tuesday's 2-1 victory over Presbyterian is a good-news, bad-news situation for third-ranked South Carolina.
The good news for USC is the pitchers continue to roar. Four hurlers, starting with freshman left-hander Jordan Montgomery scattered five singles and struck out six in holding the struggling Blue Hose (0-8) to one run.
USC will take an unbeaten record (7-0) into the weekend rivalry series against Clemson. The first encounter between the Gamecocks and Tigers is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Joe Riley Park in Charleston.
But before USC could think about Clemson, it had to take care of business against winless Presbyterian. And the Blue Hose, swept last weekend at Mercer, came close to pulling off a shocking win in front of an announced crowd of 6,521 fans at Carolina Stadium.
"There is a lot of parity in college baseball and anybody can beat anybody," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "There is not a lot of separation."
Relievers Nolan Belcher (2 1-3 innings), Ethan Carter (2 1-3 innings) and Tyler Webb (1-3 of an inning) yielded just one hit over the final five innings with five strikeouts as USC managed to slip past PC.
Belcher took over for Montgomery at the beginning of the fifth and was credited with his first victory since May 11, 2010, when he started and hurled the first five innings of a win over Wofford.
He fanned three of the eight batters he faced as he continued his inspiring comeback from the Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2011 campaign.
"Once again, it felt good to get back out there and get an opportunity," Belcher said. "It's fun pitching. When I came out of the bullpen, it was a tight game. So I was trying to throw strikes and get ahead, and let my defense work for me.
"We definitely weren't looking ahead at all. We knew PC was going to come in here and give us a good game. They've played us tight ever since I've been here. They're a good program and have a good coach."
Carter retired seven of the eight batters he faced until Webb came on to face a left-handed hitter with a man on base and record the final out for his first save of the season.
The bad news? USC's hitters mustered just four hits against three Presbyterian hurlers, including starter Beau Dees, who was masterful in 7 1-3 innings with two runs and four hits allowed while striking out five.
However, two of those hits were a lead-off triple by freshman TJ Costen in the bottom of the third and a two-out solo homer by freshman Joey Pankake into the PC bullpen in the bottom of the fourth.
"We're very happy to pull this one out today," Tanner said. "Again, our pitching staff did a heckuva job for us. They put us in a position to win. On their side, Beau Dees was impressive. I told him after the game that when you pitch that well, you deserve to win.
"My guys pitched well, too. But he did everything he could to give Presbyterian a chance to win today. We hit a few balls OK, but the pitching on the both sides limited the offensive chances."
What happens when the two pitching staffs combine for nine strikeouts and four walks and many hitters swing at pitches early in the count? The contest took just 2:06 to play, the second-fastest game of the season.
USC hasn't lost to Presbyterian since 1948, but three of the last five meetings (the series was renewed in 2008) have produced one-run victories for the Gamecocks.
USC is 4-0 in one-run games in 2012, and 26-10 in one-run contests since the beginning of the first national championship season in 2010.
Montgomery survived a shaky first inning when three of the first four PC batters reached based on a single, hit batter and looping RBI single. However, the freshman left-hander from Sumter wiggled out of the jam by inducing a double-play grounder to Costen, ending the threat.
"That (double play) was definitely big," Montgomery said. "I got myself into a little bit of a mess pegging that batter and giving up that little bloop hit. I just needed to settle down and start hitting my spots better. I missed my spot a couple of times and paid for it on some hits."
USC did not announce a split start before the game, so Montgomery had to pitch five innings in order to be credited with the victory. He hurled four.
"They told me they were going to try to split it up a little bit, so maybe it was pitch count or they wanted to keep me fresh for the weekend in case they needed me," Montgomery said. "I'm happy they trusted me with my first start."
He settled down by retiring six of the next seven batters. He allowed a lead-off single in the fourth, but a fielder's-choice grounder and a caught-stealing vanquished the threat.
Presbyterian's lead stood up until the third when Costen rifled a shot into the right-center gap. One of the fastest players on the team, the first-year player from Virginia flew around the bases and ended up with a triple, USC's fourth three-bagger of the season.
Moments later, he scored on a groundout to first by Evan Marzilli, who collected his fourth RBI of the season.
The next inning, with the score tied 1-1, Pankake walloped a fastball from Dees over the left-center field fence for the eventual game-winning run, recording his first career homer and RBI in the process.
The coincidence? Pankake hit his decisive homer on National Pancake Day.
"He was keeping us off-balance and we hadn't had many hits fall," Pankake said. "I was just trying to put the bat to the ball and put something in play and try to get something started. It just happened to go out."
Hours earlier, Pankake celebrated National Pancake Day with free pancakes at a local restaurant.
* Tanner inserted Brison Celek (first base) and Erik Payne (designated hitter) into the starting lineup. Tanner said he was trying to build USC's depth for later in the season. "Celek has been swinging the bat really well in practice, and Erik Payne is a much improved player from a year ago," Tanner said. "You have to figure out as the season goes along who you can call on at different times. They're not starters for us, but they got a chance to start today. I was trying to build our depth a little bit."
* When asked if the second base situation had been resolved on the eve of the start of the Clemson series, Tanner replied, "Not exactly." Costen started Tuesday for his second start at second base and third overall.
* Tentative pitching match-ups for the first two USC-Clemson games this weekend: Michael Roth vs. Kevin Brady on Friday in Charleston (6 p.m.) and Matt Price vs. Dominic Leone on Saturday in Columbia (2 p.m.)
* USC leads the all-time series with Presbyterian 43-19. The last PC win against the Gamecocks came on April 27, 1948, when the Hose beat USC 1-0 in Clinton. Except for a 15-0 rout in 2010, most of the meetings have been close. The two schools met just once between 1954-2007 until resuming the series in 2008, the final year at Sarge Frye Field.
SEC BASEBALL SCHEDULE/SCORES (Tuesday)
Kentucky 3, Morehead State 2
Arkansas 5, BYU 0
Ole Miss 7, Memphis 2
Middle Tenn. State 5, Tennessee 4
Auburn 7, Alabama State 1
Alabama 4, South Alabama 3
Georgia 5, Savannah State 0
LSU 17, Grambling 10
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