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February 17, 2013

USC-Liberty Diamond Extra

Much was made - and rightfully so - of former coach Ray Tanner's gift for pushing just the right button, for making just the right substitution, in crunch time to pull out a victory. Many wondered how Chad Holbrook would do in similar pressure situations, and on Sunday, he made his first such move with dramatic success in Game 1 of a doubleheader.

After designated hitter Erik Payne went 0-for-2 with a fielder's choice and a ground-out,
Holbrook inserted Connor Bright in the seventh inning, and he also went 0-for-2 in subsequent innings. So, with the game on the line, facing two outs with the bases loaded and trailing by a run, Holbrook pulled Bright and went with his third designated hitter of the game in Kyle Martin. The move worked like a charm.

Martin got ahead of Liberty reliever Josh Richardson 3-0, took a strike, then drilled the fifth pitch of the at-bat into Richardson's ribs. The play was ruled an infield single, scoring pinch-runner Shon Carson from third, and the winning run was scored by Graham Saiko when Liberty catcher Trey Wimmer's throw to get Martin at first was wild and squirted into right field.

For his efforts, Martin got the starting nod in Game 2, although he went 0-for-2 and was pinch-hit for by Brison Celek in the sixth. Celek struck out.

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT: Tanner also won his share of close shaves as skipper of the Gamecocks, and the one-run magic continued for Holbrook over the weekend, as USC won two of three one-run affairs.

The three one-run games were the Gamecocks' 31st in their past 72 games. In those contests, USC is 18-14.

WESTY WINS: Big left-hander and hard-luck senior Adam Westmoreland got his first win of the season in Game 1 of the doubleheader, a good sign for the Brookland-Cayce High School product. He came in as the fourth pitcher of the inning in the seventh when Liberty plated six runs, and stayed on to stop the bleeding. Although he allowed two hits and two runs in the seventh, errors cost him as he should've been out of the inning when the first batter he faced grounded to short with two outs, and Joey Pankake booted the ball.

In the eighth and ninth, Westmoreland faced the minimum, striking out two and not allowing a ball out of the infield.

TOMAN TOSSED: With no visiting clubhouse at Carolina Stadium, Liberty coach Jim Toman had to pack up his gear and make the long walk from the dugout down the left-field line nearly all the way to the visiting bullpen, through the gate, out the stadium and onto the waiting team bus parked behind left field. Toman was ejected during Game 2 for arguing a call.

For his tirade and exit, Toman wasn't booed but rather cheered by fans who fondly remember Toman's 11-year run as an assistant under Tanner from 1997-2007. For his part, Toman likely was happy to get out of the cold and get ready to head home, where the Flames will open their own new stadium next weekend. Liberty's new park will feature 2,500 seats, a turf playing field and full operations center for the baseball program.

BRRRRRRRR: While Friday's opener featured temperatures in the mid-60s, it was a chilly 41 degrees for the first pitch at 1:02 p.m. on Sunday. If the thermometer went a degree above that, it didn't feel like it, especially in the shade and with the wind gusting in from left field at up to 13 miles an hour.

The announced crowd for the doubleheader was a hardy 7,513 fans, although that number fell drastically once the sun left the stadium at about 5:45 p.m.

THROWING SMOKE: Nolan Belcher's nine strikeouts on Sunday in Game 2 were his highest since he struck out 11 against Georgia on May 15, 2009. Belcher also tied a school record in the first inning when he struck out four batters in a single inning, thanks to a passed ball that allowed a Liberty strikeout victim to reach first base. In addition to the first inning, the senior left-hander also struck out the side in the fifth inning.

CHRISTIAN DEBUTS: Freshman Ahmad Christian made his debut in Game 2 on Sunday, starting at designated hitter. He struck out on four pitches in both of his at-bats before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning.

Fellow football player Carson got in Friday's game and the first game on Sunday as a pinch-runner. On Sunday, Carson scored the tying run in the bottom of the ninth on the play that also scored the winning run behind him.

LOFTY HISTORY: Prior to this weekend's series, the last three times Liberty and USC met, the Gamecocks were either ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation. In 2000, the Gamecocks were No. 1 when the teams met in the Columbia NCAA Regional. In 2007, USC was No. 1 when the teams faced each other at the Crab House Shootout in Charleston, and in 2011, at Carolina Stadium, the Gamecocks were No. 2.

SO FAR, SO GOOD: So far, the experiment to have sophomore centerfielder Tanner English bat from the left side has paid off. English went 3-for-9 with two walks and a strikeout from the left side against Liberty over the weekend despite hitting in three different positions in the batting order, while also stealing a base and playing mostly spectacular defense. He made one diving catch to rob a hit and threw out a runner at home on a single up the middle.

On Friday, English led off, going 1-for-4. He followed that by going 1-for-2 in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader batting in the eighth spot, then moved down one to the bottom of the order in Game 2, going 1-for-3.

COURSE CORRECTIONS: After watching his team commit three costly errors in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader, Holbrook re-set his defense in Game 2.

In Game 1, Pankake was charged with a throwing error that could have ended the inning in the sixth, but allowed four more runs to score on a throw that could have been nabbed by a strong defensive first baseman. In the nightcap, LB Dantzler moved back to his natural position of third, where he played during all of 2012, while Kyle Martin came on at first and Chase Vergason, who went 0-for-1 with two walks, sat.

Dantzler looked comfortable at his old position, fielding balls cleanly, picking them out of the dirt and generally making strong, chest-high throws across the diamond, including a stretch of three putouts in a four-batter stretch over the second and third innings.

USC 8, Liberty 7
Liberty 3, USC 2
Kentucky 20, UNC Asheville 3
Western Illinois 7, Arkansas 5
Ole Miss 5, TCU 2
Mississippi State 7, Portland 1
Southern Miss 6, Missouri 1
Long Beach State 13, Vanderbilt 9
Georgia Southern 11, Georgia 2
Alabama 7, VMI 4
Florida 16, Duke 5
Texas A&M 5, Illinois-Chicago 1
LSU 14, Maryland 3
Auburn 8, Maine 4
Arkansas 7, Western Illinois 2
Auburn 12, Maine 2
Auburn 4, Maine 3
Mississippi State 2, Portland 1
LSU 5, Maryland 1
Georgia Southern 3, Georgia 2
Ole Miss 5, TCU 2
Vanderbilt 12, Long Beach State 2
Southern Miss 5, Missouri 3
Alabama 10, VMI 5
Texas A&M 4, Illiniois-Chicago 3
Florida 4, Duke 2
Tennessee 8, UNLV 3
UNLV 5, Tennessee 4

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