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March 18, 2012
VIDEO: Ray Tanner
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Before South Carolina left on Thursday, ace pitcher Michael Roth cracked a grin and quipped, "We're just going to try to go get lucky in Kentucky." It was meant as a joke.
Nobody's laughing now.
The No. 3 Gamecocks were handed their first SEC series sweep since 2009 when Kentucky finished a three-game series with a 6-3 win on Sunday, leaving USC inhabiting the cellar of the SEC and looking for any answer it can find. The Gamecocks are hitting, but not scoring, and on Sunday, their prized bullpen surrendered three sixth-inning runs that were the difference.
It wasn't luck that switched the series to the Wildcats, still undefeated at 21-0 and on top of the league at 3-0. It was that they were the better team.
And that was a very bitter pill to swallow for a program that has been the gem of the sport for the past two straight seasons.
"It was a tough weekend," coach Ray Tanner said. "You've got to give Kentucky a tremendous amount of credit. They've run the table so far.
"We got 29 or 30 hits, but we averaged three runs a game. It's difficult to beat a good team that way. We weren't as good as Kentucky was this weekend."
USC tied or out-hit Kentucky in all three games, 11-11 on Sunday contributing to a combined 31-26 for the weekend. But the Wildcats manufactured runs off their hits, out-scoring USC 14-9.
They also answered every time USC took a lead. On Sunday, immediately after the Gamecocks went up 3-2 in the fifth inning, Kentucky scratched one run across in the bottom of the frame and scored three more in the sixth. To USC these days, a three-run deficit is nearly impossible to equal.
The Gamecocks remain in search of any kind of consistent offense, one that can lay down a sacrifice bunt, steal a base and hit the occasional home run. At 15-4, 0-3, they will have to try and find it with just one day off over the next six - after Monday, USC has two midweek games.
Then on Thursday, No. 1 Florida comes to town seeking more of a leg up in the early race for the SEC crown. And that the Gators lost the national championship to the Gamecocks last year just might be a focal point in their pre-series preparation.
USC is staring down a dark path. Tanner has shuffled and re-shuffled his lineup but can't find any consistent answers, and he knows there are no more "warm-up" weekends after the Gamecocks surprisingly went 11-1 in their first four.
"It's definitely frustrating that we didn't put up more runs than we did," said senior Adam Matthews, who had two singles but also grounded into a bases-loaded double play in the fourth. "It's a long season. We can't really let this one wear us down too much."
Colby Holmes gave up a two-run home run to Luke Maile, the hero of Friday's game, in the first inning but settled down after. The Gamecocks got one run back in the second when Erik Payne was hit by a pitch, then scored on LB Dantzler's double into the right-field corner, but Matthews was picked off of first with Dantzler at third to end the frame.
USC solved Kentucky's Corey Littrell in the fifth. Tanner English singled and Evan Marzilli sacrificed him to second, before Joey Pankake singled to get English to third, and Christian Walker drove him in with a groundout.
With two outs, Grayson Greiner hit another RBI single and USC led 3-2. With the bullpen heating - Holmes had been dynamite but was on 80 pitches after four frames - USC took the lead and called for its collection of arms.
Hunter Privette squelched a Kentucky rally in the fifth but not before the Wildcats tied the game. Nolan Belcher entered in the sixth and gave up a leadoff single before retiring Cameron Flynn.
Joel Seddon relieved and walked Thomas McCarthy, earning a quick hook. Tyler Webb faced J.T. Riddle and Riddle stung a single past third as Dantzler, playing for a short hop, was caught out of position.
Michael Williams also singled and two runs scored for a 6-3 lead. Webb, Patrick Sullivan, Logan Munson and Drake Thomason got out of the game with no further damage, but trailing three runs and knowing their offense was missing a few teeth, the Gamecocks were against the wall.
USC's final chance was in the eighth, when TJ Costen hit a one-out single and English moved him to third with a two-out single. With leadoff hitter Evan Marzilli due up, Tanner took a chance - pinch-hitter Brison Celek stood in for his eighth at-bat of the year.
"I'm thinking, 'One pitch to get this thing tied up,'" Tanner said. "It was going to be very difficult for Evan to hit a ball on that side of the field. Everything was holding up over there. You're just taking a chance there, one swing of the bat."
Celek grounded the first pitch to second. Had the second baseman not been playing on the shift, perhaps it would have squirted through. As it was, Riddle was on the shift, gloved and stepped on the bag to end the frame.
The Gamecocks put Pankake on first in the ninth after an error but went 1-2-3 afterward. Erik Payne futilely swung through Trevor Gott's first pitch and Gott strutted off the mound as his teammates engulfed it.
There was no way for USC to point toward the over-the-top celebration as "Act like you've been there before," because Kentucky hasn't. All the Gamecocks could do was tip their caps, board the bus - and wonder where in the hell they go from here.
Tanner, still seeking his 1,100th win as a head coach, had his chin up and seemed his usual confident self. But even he admitted that there were far too many questions at this point, and hardly enough answers.
"We've got to find something," he said. "We're trying to find some way to go."
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