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March 10, 2013

An afternoon of living dangerously



Chad Holbrook will take it any way he can get it.

Out-hit by almost a two-to-one margin, South Carolina held off feisty Rider over the final three innings for a tense 1-0 victory in front of 7,031 fans at sunny Carolina Stadium on Sunday, completing a hard-earned three-game sweep over the Broncs.

Rider stranded seven runners over the final three innings, leaving the based loaded in the top of the ninth as closer Tyler Webb induced a game-ending fly out to Shon Carson in center field for his fifth save of the season and second of the weekend.

"That was a great college baseball game. We could easily have lost that game," Holbrook said. "All in all, I'm tickled to death because we beat a good team. One publication out there called Rider the Stony Brook of this season, and I see why. They're a gritty bunch. I feel very fortunate we were able to win three games from a team that will probably be in the NCAA tournament."

The shutout was the fifth of the season for the USC pitching staff - and fifth in the last eight games - even though starter Nolan Belcher and Webb allowed 11 hits on Sunday. USC had just five hits off Rider starter Mike Murphy (came in with an 8.98 ERA in 9.1 innings) and one reliever.

USC has yielded 15 runs in the last eight games, and extended its winning streak to six games (with four shutouts and nine runs allowed during the stretch) with the beginning of conference play on the horizon.

"I'm happy where we are, but there are some things that are disconcerting," Holbrook said. "We had an emotional weekend against Clemson, two games in the middle of this week (Ball State) and a three-game series this weekend," Holbrook said. "I thought we were a little bit tired today, but they were trying awfully hard."

Following an off day on Monday, the Gamecocks host USC Upstate at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

The Rider series was the poster child for parity in college baseball as the Gamecocks won three straight over the Broncs by a combined seven runs, and took two of the contest by the soccer-like scores of 2-0 and 1-0.

Joey Pankake's thunderous homer onto the concrete walkway overlooking the visitor's bullpen - distance rarely seen nowadays with the toned-down bats mandated by the NCAA - led off the bottom of the fourth and fashioned the game's only run.

The long ball was Pankake's fourth of the season, tying him with LB Dantzler for the team-high.

"I would like to say it's a lot of skill, but some of it is luck," Pankake said. "Some people ask me where I keep the horseshoe, but I'm just trying to shorten up (my swing) and hit the ball on the barrel a lot more."

Belcher allowed eight hits in seven-plus innings with seven strikeouts and no walks, expanding his strikeout-to-walk ratio to a remarkable 30-to-1 after 27.2 innings this season.

"I'm just trying to throw strikes and let my defense work for me," Belcher said after his 25th career start. "You have to commend them. They came back after losing the series yesterday and battled today. It feels like I was throwing out of the stretch every inning."

Great defense - particularly by freshman second baseman Max Schrock - bolstered USC's fortunes all afternoon as the Gamecocks turned in an errorless performance for the eighth time in 15 games this season.

"We made some great defensive plays," Holbrook said. "Max Schrock was terrific at second base. He's been incredible defensively since he's been here. We gave up 11 hits but didn't give up a run. We made pitches when we had to and defensive plays when we had to. Some days, you're not going to swing the bat. That's baseball. We didn't necessarily swing it great today, but we found a way to win."

Belcher was forced to rely on the escape hatch a couple of occasions, none more so than in the top of the seventh when Rider had runners on the corners with no outs, and appeared likely to even the score.

But a foul pop to third and a failed squeeze bunt towards the right side when Dantzler flipped to catcher Grayson Greiner, who applied the tag on the sliding Rider runner, produced two outs.

A fielder's choice-ground-out to second kept the shutout going for Belcher, and undoubtedly left Rider frustrated.

"My confidence is pretty high right now," Belcher said. "I've had a few good starts. Mainly, I'm throwing strike one a lot better than I ever have before and getting the ball in on righties a lot more than I have in the past. That seems to be helpful. Just making quality pitches and throwing strikes has been the biggest difference."

Belcher was finally lifted after yielding a leadoff single in the top of the eighth. Webb gave up a single to the first Rider batter he faced before a sacrifice bunt by Rider's cleanup hitter moved both runners into scoring position.

With USC living dangerously yet again, Webb fanned the next batter and then induced a pop-up for the final out as the Gamecocks escaped the second major jam in two innings.

In the top of the ninth, consecutive one-out singles to Rider's No. 8 and 9 hitters and a two-out walk loaded the bases as the tension mounted. But a fly-out to Carson in medium center ended the game as Holbrook and his entire team breathed a sigh of relief.

Belcher dodged a bases-loaded jam in the top of the second with a force-out at second. A sharp single to left and a pair of infield singles smothered by Pankake and Schrock opened the door for Rider to take the lead, but Belcher made a pitch when he had to.

USC had an early scoring opportunity when Graham Saiko led off the bottom of the first with a walk, stole second and moved to third on a fly-out to the left field corner. But Dantzler grounded out to leave him stranded.

After Pankake's homer, USC mustered little offense against Murphy and reliever Sean Kuberiet, generating just two hits and three base-runners over the final four innings. The two Rider pitchers retired 15 of the final 18 USC hitters.

Murphy had allowed 17 hits and 10 runs in 9.1 innings in two previous appearances this season, but looked like a wily veteran on Sunday, unleashing a nasty changeup that often kept USC's hitters off-balance, especially those standing on the right side of the plate.

"His numbers coming in were not good and I thought we had an advantage based on the way he looked on the stat sheet," Holbrook said. "But he was the pitcher of the year in their league. He's coming off Tommy John (surgery). He's been a very good pitcher in his career and he was good today.

"He threw a lot of changeups to our right-handed guys, baffling them, and our left-handed hitters couldn't pick up his changeup. And we had some at-bats that were disappointing. But that happens in baseball."

PLAYER OF THE GAME: Belcher. The senior left-hander from Augusta was stellar again, improving to 3-1 with a 1.63 ERA in 27.2 innings. He has allowed just five runs on 23 hits with 30 strikeouts.

KEY MOMENT: Pankake's long homer to left scored the only run of the game.

TURNING POINT: The final three innings were jam-packed with one golden scoring opportunity after another for Rider, but somehow Belcher and Webb kept scrambling out of trouble and kept the Broncs off the scoreboard.

HOW THE RUNS SCORED
USC 4th - Pankake homered to left, Dantzler struck out, Schrock grounded to second, Greiner flied to center. ONE RUN, ONE HIT (USC 1-0).

Box score



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