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February 17, 2013

USC can't douse Flames in nightcap

Jim Toman made sure that his second trip to Carolina Stadium as Liberty's coach was memorable.

Angered over a controversial call by the umpires in the bottom of the first inning, Toman, a former South Carolina assistant, was ejected and then milked his exit for all it was worth by waving, thanking and high-fiving appreciative Gamecock fans as he strolled along the warning track and through the outfield grass en route to the Flames' bus.

His absence wasn't a deterrent for a talented Flames team, though, as it bounced back from a late-inning meltdown earlier in the day to edge No. 7 USC 3-2 in a seven-inning second game of a chilly Sunday doubleheader.

All three games in the season-opening series were decided by one run.

"That was an NCAA-tournament team that we played," USC coach Chad Holbrook said. "It will be a good RPI weekend for us after the season is complete. I feel very fortunate to have won the series. Now we have to practice hard this week and get better."

USC fell to 2-1 and next faces Albany at 3 p.m. on Friday in the first of a three-game series.

After scoring five runs in the bottom of the ninth of Game 1 on Sunday, the same final-inning magic didn't materialize in the nightcap.

TJ Costen reached base on a walk, but was erased from the basepaths when the Liberty third baseman fielded Tanner English's bunt and fired to second, nipping Costen for the first out. Moments later, English was thrown out at second on a botched hit-and-run and Graham Saiko flied to left to end a long and chilly afternoon of baseball.

USC left-hander Nolan Belcher, a fifth-year senior making his 22nd career start, suffered the hard-luck loss by giving up three runs and four hits in 5 2-3 innings, dropping his career mark to 11-9. He matched his longest stint since March 16, 2010, when he hurled six innings at Furman.

Belcher fanned nine Liberty batters, including four in the first inning when a passed ball by catcher Grayson Greiner allowed one would-be strikeout victim to reach first.

"It was a long day, but that's no excuse. We had a chance to win," Holbrook said. "I thought Nolan Belcher pitched very well. He changed speeds. It was a good game."

Liberty snapped a 1-1 tie with some serious two-out lightning in the top of the fourth. Justin Sizemore first crushed a Belcher offering into the left-field stands for the go-ahead run. But Liberty wasn't finished as a walk and triple to deep right added another run, pushing the Flames' lead to 3-1.

"Give them credit," Holbrook said. "They're a good team. They played well. I feel fortunate we won two games."

USC wasted a leadoff double to the right-center gap by Greiner in the bottom of the fourth. He advanced to third on a well-placed ground-out to second by Kyle Martin, but stayed there as Ahmad Christian and Costen both fanned.

Christian was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in his Gamecock baseball debut.

"It wasn't fair of me to put Ahmad in that situation because he's had a little bit of a back injury and it was a cold day," Holbrook said. "He had sat for a while. He had a great BP today. I should have thought a little more logically there and given him another week of rest. We'll get him back in there next weekend."

The Gamecocks halved a two-run deficit to 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth, but a key call that went against USC proved integral in the inning and likely prevented them from tying the game.

After Joey Pankake led off with a double, LB Dantzler ripped a pitch down the right-field line. The first-base umpire appeared to initially rule it fair, and Greiner crossed the plate. However, the crew conferred and reversed the call to a foul ball. Dantzler grounded out to second as what was left of the crowd of 7,513 mostly-USC supporters booed lustily.

"It was a tough call that could have gone either way," Holbrook said. "We had some momentum there, but we couldn't keep it going after that little sequence. I felt some energy leave the dugout. I would have liked to see it pick up a notch. The game was still winnable for us."

Pankake ended up scoring on a sacrifice fly off the bat of pinch-hitter Erik Payne, but the single tally wasn't enough to even the score.

Pankake (2-for-2, RBI) and Saiko (2-for-4) led USC's six-hit attack. Three of Liberty's seven hits consisted of two triples and a solo homer.

USC scored its first run in the third when English, batting ninth in the order, singled to right and moved up a base on another single by Saiko. English went to third on a fielder's-choice ground-out before scoring easily on Pankake's sacrifice fly to right.

Belcher (86 pitches, 63 strikes) was credited with four strikeouts in the top of the first when one Liberty batter reached on a passed ball on strike three by Greiner.

When Liberty managed to make contact off Belcher, it registered a triple into the right-center cap and a soft infield single that Pankake charged but couldn't glove, allowing the run to score.

Neither team committed an error in the contest after combining for three miscues in Game 1 of Sunday's doubleheader. USC committed five errors in the three games.


LIB 1st - Paxton struckout, Cordell tripled to right-center, Aanderud singled to short (RBI), Close struckout, Grauer struckout and reached on passed ball, Sizemore struckout. ONE RUN, TWO HITS (LIB 1-0).

USC 3rd - English singled to right, Saiko singled to left, Schrock grounds into fielder's choice (6-4), Pankake hits sacrifice fly to right (RBI), Dantzler grounded to second. ONE RUN, TWO HITS (TIED 1-1).

LIB 4th - Close fouled out to right, Grauer flied to center, Sizemore homered to left (RBI), Wimmer walked, Britt tripled to right-center (RBI), Sype grounded to short. TWO RUNS, TWO HITS (LIB 3-1).

USC 6th - Pankake doubled to left, Dantzler grounded to second, Greiner walked, Payne (PH) hit sacrifice fly to right (RBI), Celek (PH) struckout. ONE RUN, ONE HIT (LIB 3-2).

Box score

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