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April 6, 2012

Gamecocks fritter away Game 1

VIDEO: Post-game

Even Superman has his Clark Kent moments.

Matt Price gave up two runs over the eighth and ninth innings, the last on a throwing error that had the throw been on target, would have preserved a ninth-inning tie, and No. 11 South Carolina lost 5-4 to Tennessee on Friday. The Gamecocks (21-9, 3-7 SEC) remained in a tie for last place in the SEC East and saw their confidence, which had been high after two straight wins, shattered.

"That's not us. That's not the way we play," first baseman Christian Walker said. "You're going to have days like this. Got to work through it."

Losses were one thing, but USC saw Price, the untouchable one, blow the game. Even the greatest of closers loses a game occasionally, but on Friday, Price got the bounce that could have saved the day - and threw it away.

Price had already given up the lead in the eighth when Zach Luther doubled to start the frame and Chris Fritts drove him in with a fielder's choice. Then in the ninth, Price gave up back-to-back singles that put runners at the corners for Luther.

Luther bunted and it resulted in a dream situation. The ball popped into the air and Price easily gloved it. Zach Osborne, running on the potential squeeze play, was caught in the basepath.

Price waited for his defenders to get over and had plenty of time to set his feet and make the throw. He threw too high, lobbing it over Joey Pankake's outstretched glove, and the ball bounded into left as Price bent over with hands on his knees. Osborne, who had dived back into the bag, hastily got up and ran home with the winning run.

"I tried to wait for one of the guys to get back to the bag," Price said. "Kind of tried to lead him in there. I kind of let it get away from me. Tipped his glove, run scored."

Given a gift, Tennessee closer Nick Blount knew what to do with it. Replacing Drew Steckenrider, who had struck out six of his seven batters, Blount dodged a long foul ball from Walker and a shot to the warning track from Brison Celek to clinch the save and the game. USC was left once more staring at a one-run loss, and the opportunities it threw away.

The Gamecocks struck out 13 times. They stranded nine runners, including five in the first four innings when freshman TJ Costen, subbing for an injured Tanner English, twice struck out to end frames. In a two-run sixth, USC took a brief lead, only to lose more potential runs on base-running blunders.

Sean Sullivan replaced Costen and bunted with two men on and nobody out, but the ball went right to pitcher Zack Godley, who threw to third to retire the lead runner. Evan Marzilli singled to right field, and Chase Vergason rounded third, before third-base coach Chad Holbrook wisely held up the stop sign.

Sullivan thought that Vergason was going home and was caught running to third, retired on a 9-2-4 relay. "Sean thought that (Vergason) was scoring," coach Ray Tanner said. "Shouldn't have gone, obviously."

Walker made it OK with a two-run single, but with Joey Pankake on third base with two outs, Walker took off for second. The ploy, meant to hang up the relay long enough for Pankake to score another run, backfired when Pankake didn't run right away and Walker, not the fastest player in the league, was tagged out.

The inning was USC's last gasp. Steckenrider had blasted a two-run homer in the sixth before the Gamecocks re-took the lead, but he replaced Godley on the mound and started throwing 93 mile-per-hour fastballs past USC's flummoxed bats. Tanner, going with the approach that had worked so many times, summoned Price from the bullpen for another long save - and Price threw it away.

"I'm not disappointed in Matt Price," Tanner said. "The way they got that fifth run was a freakish play there. That's part of baseball. Things happen."

They do, but they haven't been happening to USC over the past two seasons. Whether it's the cycle coming back around or just plain not hitting - "We got four again," Tanner said. "You don't deserve to win when you strike out 13 times" - the Gamecocks (21-8, 3-7 SEC) are scuffling.

"These games are huge," said Walker, who had another two RBIs. "You win a game like that, you got the momentum. We've got to stop thinking so much and just play the game."

USC will try to even the series behind freshman Jordan Montgomery on Saturday in a prime-time televised game. Price, who has permanently returned to the bullpen, may be called on again.

"It is very frustrating, but at the same time, it's the way baseball happens sometimes," Price said. "For me as a closer, you've got to flush it, be ready to go tomorrow."

NOTE: English left the game in the first inning after breaking back on a fly ball, then running forward and stumbling as the ball fell in front of him. He was announced as having a strained right hamstring. Tanner said he didn't know the severity of the strain, but English was hobbling with an ice pack on the back of his leg in the dugout.

Box score

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