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March 30, 2012

Big inning finally surfaces

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - South Carolina was waiting for this one.

The 11th-ranked Gamecocks finally found the big inning that has eluded them for the past month, notching five runs in the third frame on Friday to pace an 8-3 series-opening win over Vanderbilt. Brison Celek walloped a two-run double off the wall to break that inning open, Christian Walker posted the first two-home run night of his three-year career and Matt Price was again Matt Price as USC notched its long-awaited second SEC win.

"It was good to see," coach Ray Tanner said, the relief he felt obvious. "It was a great feeling in (the dugout). We haven't put up too many of those numbers."

Shuffling his lineup although two-hole hitter Joey Pankake (bicep strain) was cleared to play, Tanner put Celek in at designated hitter, just behind Walker. The struggling LB Dantzler dropped to seventh while speedsters Tanner English and Adam Matthews rounded it out - or, set the table for leadoff man Evan Marzilli.

With protection up and down the order, USC (19-7, 2-5 SEC) leaped ahead in the first when Vanderbilt starter Kevin Ziomek (2-4) left a two-out, two-strike fastball over the plate. Walker deposited it off the top rail of the left-center bleachers for a solo homer, and the Gamecocks began to get warmed up.

With Michael Roth (3-0) shutting the Commodores' bats down, English and Matthews began the third with back-to-back bunt singles. Marzilli kept his streak of reaching base in every game this year alive by smoking an RBI single to center, and the carousel began to spin.

Walker was intentionally put on to load the bases but Celek didn't cooperate with Vandy's plans, nearly knocking a hole through the left-center "Green Monster" to drive in two runs. "I put a good swing on it," Celek said. "I was hoping to hit the wall in fair territory. Trying to help our pitching staff out, grab the unicorn by the horn."

Erik Payne got Walker home on a sacrifice fly and Dantzler drove in Celek with a single to finish a five-run inning, handing Roth a six-run lead. It was the first time USC had batted around since the fourth game of the season. Knowing he hadn't given up three runs, much less six, in a game since his freshman year, Roth went back to work.

Vandy notched him for two runs in the fourth but a double play (Payne to Pankake to Walker) killed the rally. Roth settled down until the seventh, when Vanderbilt (10-16, 2-5) loaded the bases with nobody out, then got one run in on a single.

Ahead 8-3 (Walker lifted a two-run shot off the top of the Green Monster in left in the seventh) and with the tying run in the on-deck circle, Tanner didn't hesitate. Knowing that it might be a possibility, Tanner had left a "TBA" beside Saturday's probable pitching matchup. It was for this moment.

Roth came out. Price came in.

"We had to win," the veteran hurler said. "Coach told me we got to win, so get down to the pen, get ready. When they called on me, I was ready to go into the game."

Despite being deprived of a start, Price paid no mind. He struck out Connor Harrell on four pitches, whiffed Connor Castellano on six and got a first-pitch fly ball to center from Tony Kemp.

Vanderbilt never recovered. Price buzzed through the Commodores' lineup in the eighth and got a double play to end the game, when Walker threw to Pankake and Pankake returned the throw to double-up John Norwood.

"Although the score looks like it wasn't a tough game for us down the stretch, the bases were loaded when he came in," Tanner said. "We're not in a position to leave a guy like Matt over there."

As it did last week, USC won the first game of a series. Now the Gamecocks want to do what they haven't been able to in the first two weekends of SEC play - claim a series.

Price will stay in the bullpen for the rest of this weekend. Freshman Evan Beal will start his first career game on Saturday.

"Up until now, everything hasn't really been clicking," Walker said. "It was good to see some of that tonight. (For tomorrow), same approach as today. It's good to get out to a one-game lead like that, take some pressure off tomorrow."

Box score

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