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March 17, 2012

Gamecocks drop game, series



VIDEO: Matt Price


VIDEO: Christian Walker



LEXINGTON, Ky. - Christian Walker and Ray Tanner said that there's nothing that wrong with South Carolina's offense. The Gamecocks are getting some key hits, some key bunts, some good production despite not scoring many runs. It will come around one day.

Waiting for it may be increasingly frustrating.

The Gamecocks dropped their second straight game and their first SEC series of the season on Saturday, 4-3 to a Kentucky team that must now be considered legit. The Wildcats (20-0, 2-0 SEC) began the season 18-0 but didn't play a heavy non-conference slate; after taking a series against the back-to-back national champions, they'll be shooting into the nation's consciousness when the new Top 25 is released on Monday.

As for the back-to-back champs, it's becoming painfully obvious that that was then and this is now. USC (15-3, 0-2) continues to pitch well, but strands villages on the basepaths, can't get any consistent hitting from anybody not named Walker or Evan Marzilli and keeps finding one crucial fundamental gaffe per game to give the opponent a chance.

On Saturday, it was a fly ball that freshman left fielder Tanner English lost in the sun that turned the tide. The Gamecocks took a 3-2 lead in the sixth inning but Matt Price gave up a two-out tying single to tie the game; Kentucky got to the seventh and spurted ahead.

Price (2-1) left a one-out, two-on situation for reliever Tyler Webb, who faced cleanup hitter A.J. Reed. Reed lifted a high fly ball into left field and English broke toward center.

The problem was the ball began drifting left, and English realized the mistake too late. Despite being the fastest player on the team, English couldn't get back quickly enough and the ball dropped beyond his outstretched glove. Austin Cousino tore around third base for the go-ahead run and Kentucky rode its bullpen to the finish.

The Gamecocks had one last gasp when Michael Roth pinch-hit and smacked a double into the gap to start the ninth, and Dante Rosenberg bunted pinch-runner TJ Costen to third. With just one out and the tying run 90 feet away, leadoff hitter Marzilli struck out.

Brison Celek pinch-hit and saw three pitches. Celek, in just his seventh at-bat of the year, was far overmatched on the third and final as he mightily swung and missed.

Kentucky exploded out of its dugout and celebrated on the mound while USC sullenly packed its gear. Mound celebrations have been a part of Gamecock baseball the past two years and to watch somebody else do it is a bit vexing.

It was USC's first SEC-opening series loss since 2009. Kentucky has won a school-record 20 straight games and will attempt to sweep the Gamecocks on Sunday.

"We're not a team that is very explosive anyway, and when you don't take advantage of some run-scoring opportunities, normally it will come back to get you a little bit," coach Ray Tanner said. "And they got us."

English's error was galling, especially when the freshman also broke in on a ball in the second inning that ended up going over his head for a double. Erik Payne misplayed a ball for the second straight day. Price plunked three batters, and while Kentucky is notorious for crowding the plate, Price beaned two hitters in the back.

Yet, after Walker and Grayson Greiner hit back-to-back doubles in the sixth, the game was tied at 2. Payne lifted an 0-2 pitch to center to get Greiner in with the go-ahead run and all looked rosy for the Gamecocks.

Until Kentucky immediately tied it, took the lead an inning later and USC didn't have enough offense to move the tying run 90 feet, even with two outs to do so.

The Gamecocks were left to agonize over another day of missed opportunities. They stranded eight runners and bounced into three double plays while their leadoff hitter (Marzilli) reached once and their No. 2 hitter (English) did the same.

"I don't think we're struggling that much," said Walker, who was 3-for-4. "We're starting to hit the ball better. It's SEC play - we didn't expect anything else. Just a combination of things."

Tanner is trying to get as many sticks in the lineup as he can, which is why Payne continues to play at second base despite him still learning the position. Chase Vergason, Costen and Connor Bright aren't hitting well enough to be out there, and with Adam Matthews also struggling (he was replaced by Sean Sullivan on Saturday), USC is simply trying to find some kind of cohesive mix.

It's not happening. The hitting isn't that bad - USC has 20 base knocks in two games and is batting .284 for the season. But the runs aren't coming home, whether it's because of missed bunts, not getting the "speed" guys on base or swinging at a pitch that is highly likely to result in a ground ball.

"For the second day in a row, I guess we out-hit them, but those three double plays loomed large. And we lost a ball in the sun that was very critical there," Tanner said. "We've been in a lot of these close ones. It was anybody's game and for the second day in a row, they won a close one."

Box score

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