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February 24, 2012

Near no-hitter highlights win over Elon



So close.

Third-ranked South Carolina fell one out short of the school's first no-hitter in 37 years, but a dominant pitching performance by Michael Roth (99 pitches in seven innings) sparked an impressive 8-1 victory over mistake-prone Elon on Friday at soggy Carolina Stadium.

"It was a good first win in the series for us," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "It was a great outing by Michael Roth. He made some nice pitches in some situations that could have gone different. He got some change-ups over and he was throwing his cutter pretty good."

The second game of the three-game weekend is set for 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. Matt Price is the scheduled starter for USC and he will be opposed by Elon left-hander Dylan Clark.

USC reliever Patrick Sullivan surrendered a home run over the left-field fence by Elon's Garrett Koster with two outs in the top of the ninth, snapping the no-hit bid and denying the Gamecocks their first no-no since 1975 when, coincidentally, they accomplished the feat on consecutive days.

"I wasn't really engrossed in that," Tanner said. "I wanted to win the game. If it happened, it happened. I didn't change anything or do anything differently to see that it happened. I know our guys would have liked to have seen it happen, but I didn't get too wrapped up in it."

Christian Walker's first home run of the season, a mammoth two-run shot in the sixth, and five RBI were the highlights for a USC offense that benefitted from five Elon errors.

"Elon uncharacteristically made some errors that gave us some run-scoring opportunities, but the story of the game for me was our pitching staff did a really nice job," Tanner said.

In four games encompassing 36 innings, USC pitchers have allowed a meager five runs and 12 hits with 43 strikeouts and eight walks.

The start of the series lid-lifter was delayed three hours by heavy rains that fell throughout the morning and early afternoon.

USC scored all the runs it would need in the bottom of the third when Joey Pankake tripled into the left-field corner and eventually scored, when Walker was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.

Pankake's drive ricocheted high off the left-field wall, inches from the foul pole, and caromed towards the infield. By the time the Elon left fielder was able to retrieve the ball, Pankake was sliding into third base with USC's second triple of the season.

Moments later, LB Dantzler lofted a sacrifice fly to right for his sixth RBI of the young season. Freshman catcher Grayson Greiner (2-of-4) then delivered a bloop RBI single into right to make it 3-0.

A pair of Elon errors by the second baseman and catcher in the fourth set the stage for a bizarre two-run single by Walker that didn't get past the pitcher's mound.

With the bases loaded and two outs, Walker hit a slow roller on a full-count pitch (meaning the runners were moving on the pitch) into no-man's land to the left of the mound. However, the throw to first was wide, allowing Adam Matthews and Pankake to score on the play.

Walker increased his nightly RBI total to five - and matched a career-high in the process - when he crushed a 2-1 pitch into the left-field seats with two outs in the sixth for his first homer of the year.

"That's about as far as I'm going to hit a ball," Walker said. "That was like one of those BP home runs where everything works out. The wind was pretty crazy. It felt good to get one through the wind. We're only four games in, but I think I'm hitting the ball well."

With USC ahead 7-0 entering the late innings, the only drama left was whether USC could complete the no-hitter.

After a liner to Pankake at shortstop led to an inning-ending double play in the third, Roth settled in by retiring 12 of the next 14 hitters, a stretch that extended through the duration of his hitless stint.

Only two of the balls put into play by Elon during that stretch reached the outfield.

Roth had seven strikeouts and three walks in his seven-inning stint, and finished his second outing of the season with a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings this season.

"I know it's my second game of the season and there is no point to (tire my arm) or anything like that," Roth said. "I pretty much knew I was done after that (seventh) inning."

Junior southpaw Nolan Belcher worked the eighth for his first appearance since May 2010, when he started against Ole Miss at the SEC tournament. He got a pair of groundouts before issuing a two-out walk. But that was all the Phoenix were able to muster off him.

"It was really nice to get a welcome from the fans," Belcher said. "I kind of felt like a freshman out there. I was excited to get back out there for the first time in a long time. I was grateful for the opportunity."

Tanner said he was "touched" by the ovation Belcher received from USC fans when he took the mound in the eighth.

"I thought that was special," Tanner said. "I know we didn't have 8,000 tonight, but the applause was great. I know he appreciated it. His stuff was good. He threw some good changeups and his fastball was OK in the mid- to upper 80s. And he got some knee-buckling breaking balls in there as well."

USC scored its final run on a sacrifice fly by Tanner English in the bottom of the eighth.

Sullivan retired the first two batters in the top of the ninth until Koster, Elon's cleanup hitter, launched a 1-0 pitch into the maintenance area underneath the scoreboard in left.

The crowd was silenced, but for just a moment. Sullivan quickly got the next Elon batter to line to Evan Marzilli in center for the final out.

Roth was hardly sulking afterwards about USC's missed opportunity to make history.

"It's still a win," Roth said. "A shutout would have been nice, but the win is what we wanted to get."

So close. But for Tanner and the Gamecocks, registering the fourth straight win to start the season was far more important, which is why Roth was pulled after seven innings even though he was working on a no-hitter.

Initially, Tanner said, the game plan called for Roth to throw about 85 pitches. But the left-hander lasted "one inning longer than I wanted to."

Barring an unforeseen injury, Roth's next start will come in seven days when the Gamecocks open a three-game weekend series against rival Clemson at Charleston's Joe Riley Park.

Roth worked around a leadoff walk in the top of the second to keep Elon scoreless. He fell behind the second Phoenix hitter 3-0, but recovered to strike him out swinging. He retired the next two hitters on a foul pop and strikeout.

NOTES

* Except for an error, Pankake had a successful night with two hits, three runs scored and five assists. "I was very happy with Pankake tonight," Tanner said. "This was his fourth game. He looked very comfortable and made some nice, tough plays. He got on base and scored some runs. I was pleased with the way he looked tonight. I was hoping that's what we would get from him."

* Walker was officially 2-for-2 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. He is now 6-for-13 (.462) with one homer and seven RBIs in the first four games.

* USC held Elon to one stolen base after it had 10 swipes in their first four games last weekend.

* Originally scheduled for a 3 p.m. start, the first pitch in Friday's game was finally thrown at 6:18 p.m.

SEC SCHEDULE/SCORES (Friday)
Alabama 14, Arkansas-Pine Bluff 0
Arkansas 7, Valparaiso 3
Arizona 8, Auburn 1
Florida 4, William & Mary 1
Georgia 13, Winthrop 5
Kentucky 13, Buffalo 4
LSU 4, Appalachian State 0
Ole Miss 2, UNC-Wilmington 0
Mississippi State 1, Kansas 0
Tennessee 9, Seton Hall 2
Oregon 4, Vanderbilt 2

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