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March 22, 2012
Matt Price returned to the bullpen on Thursday and immediately re-channeled the legend he began writing two years ago, recording a win in relief as he shut down No. 1 Florida for the final three innings in a 9-3 South Carolina win. In a game that eighth-ranked USC had to have and with starter Michael Roth tiring, the Gamecocks knew they were living on borrowed time with a bullpen that has been lax.
Coach Ray Tanner hinted that he may make a change after the bullpen blew Wednesday's 5-4 loss to Wofford. On Thursday, it came true as Price, scheduled to start Friday's game, came trotting out of the bullpen to take over for Roth.
"Might have been a couple of days ago," Price mused, as to when Tanner first approached him about a potential switch. "We came to an agreement and he came up to me in the dugout and said, 'We need you in the pen.' So I went down there and the rest was what happened."
He struck out Nolan Fontana to end a seventh-inning rally and stalked his way back to the dugout, nodding his head with each step. The man who saved both games of last year's national championship series against most of the same Gators that were on the field on Thursday went into the dugout and waited for his next chance, which became a much longer wait than he probably thought.
Immediately after Price recorded the final strikeout, USC's maligned offense came to life. Freshman Kyle Martin smoked a pinch-hit two-run single to break a 2-2 tie, and sophomore Erik Payne drove in two more with a two-out double.
Suddenly armed with a four-run lead instead of having to keep the game even, Price returned to the form of 2010 and 2011, quickly and efficiently recording outs. In no time, he was staring down Preston Tucker as the game's final batter - a high pop-up to right later, Price had another win and was again on the field as the game ended.
"I know, personally, that that bus ride home from Kentucky, I'm not sure if he would have been there in the fifth or sixth inning, but I also thought that if he pitches in relief, we might get at least one on that road trip, if not two," Tanner said. "If this game presented itself in at least a tie situation by the seventh, we were going to try to make it happen. He was pretty special when he got there."
Tanner was coy about declaring it a permanent switch, but after the Gamecocks finally resembled the back-to-back national champions that they are instead of the club that limped into Thursday having lost four of five games, it wouldn't be wise to assume that Price will return to a starting role next week.
Price (3-1) will likely be replaced by Forrest Koumas, his former replacement at closer, for Friday's start while Colby Holmes will pitch as scheduled on Sunday.
"I'm not real sure," Price said about his availability. "I'm going to go and get my work in and try to be ready for Saturday."
Price didn't give up a hit, although he walked three and gave up a run. He threw 44 pitches over 2 1-3 innings.
Adam Matthews supplied the early offense with a two-run home run, after the Gators had scored a single run first and USC (17-5, 1-3 SEC) squandered a bases-loaded, nobody-out opportunity in the first inning. The Gamecocks had to settle for that after Florida's Hudson Randall struck out a career-high 11 before he departed.
But USC answered, with seven runs over its final two innings, and won its first league game of the year.
"It was great to get on the board," Tanner said. "We've been scuffling a little bit lately. Having the No. 1 team in the country in town was not an encouraging sight, but you've got to play them."
"I think we're trying to make a statement to us, that we can still play and can get us out of that funk we're in," Roth said. "We're just excited we played a great game tonight. The way we played tonight was great. Let's hope we can keep coming up big this weekend."
USC avoided matching its all-time worst SEC start (0-5, 1992) and broke Florida's 18-game winning streak. The two teams play again at 7 p.m. on Friday.
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