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May 22, 2014

Diamond Extra: Widener shines

HOOVER, Ala. If there ever were anything that resembled a bright spot for South Carolina in its 12-0 loss to Mississippi State Wednesday night, it was the play of freshman right-hander Taylor Widener.

The Gamecocks looked utterly lost in their SEC Tournament opener, a mercy-rule loss in which the Bulldogs essentially smacked South Carolina in the face with a maroon shovel.

But for just over two innings, one freshman - Widener - looked completely in control.

The Aiken native took over for Jordan Montgomery on the mound in the fourth inning with two outs and a runner on first and immediately went to work. He started by inducing Brett Pirtle, Mississippi State's best hitter, to sky an inning-ending flyout to Tanner English in center field.

Then, the South Aiken High School product retired the side in order in the fifth and sixth innings, keeping the Bulldogs' off the scoreboard while USC struggled to get anything going offensively.

"He got off to a good start," said South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook. "He had a lot of life on the ball. I saw some high numbers up there on the board. I don't know if that gun is right or not, but it looked like he had a lot of arm tonight and threw okay."

But after sitting down the first seven batters he faced, Widener's command began to slip when he took the mound in the seventh inning. Facing the top of Mississippi State's lineup, Widener surrendered back-to-back singles to Seth Heck and C.T. Bradford.

The next batter, Pirtle, took Widener's 1-1 pitch over the right field wall for a three-run home run, pushing the Bulldogs' lead to 7-0 and spoiling the freshman's outing.

Widener was replaced by fellow freshman Reed Scott after the homer, but Mississippi State would go on to plate eight runs in the frame. Holbrook said Widener has some learning to do, but that the freshman's appearance in a big-time situation Wednesday night won't be his last as a Gamecock.

"He made a couple of mistakes to their best hitters, and he gave up the three-run homer," Holbrook said. "He's a freshman, got a great arm, got a bright future. He's got to shore up his breaking balls and his off-speed pitches and make those pitches become above-average. When those pitches catch up with his fastball, he'll be special."

"He's done some neat things for us this year, and we're going to continue to call on him to get us some big outs."

DAZED AND CONFUSED. Even with two of its best hitters - Max Schrock and Connor Bright - back in the lineup, South Carolina could do almost nothing against Mississippi State's pitchers, especially reliever Jacob Lindgren.

Neither of the two hits South Carolina mustered Wednesday night came against the junior lefty, who entered the game in the third inning with runners on first and second and no outs and mowed down 12 straight batters. The junior lefty tossed four perfect innings, striking out six batters before handing over the reins to Myles Gentry, who pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning to close out the game.

"That's special. That kid - that's as good of stuff as I've seen all year," Holbrook said of Lindgren. "I saw an article that said he could be in the big leagues by September. After seeing that, I believe it. That was impressive.

"He just overpowered us and manhandled us. I haven't seen stuff like that from a lefty in a long time. That wasn't fun to see for me, but it was impressive."

Lindgren's performance also caught the eye of one of USC's best players.

"That was one of the best pitchers we've faced all year," said junior catcher Grayson Greiner, who went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts - both to Lindgren. "He was throwing mid-90s with an upper-80s curveball. He was spotting it up and throwing whatever he wanted.

"They got four runs in the first four innings, and then they brought in their guy, Lindgren, and he was one of the best guys we've faced all year, and he kept us at bay."

INJURY UPDATE. Schrock and Bright returned from injury to play the entire seven-inning game Wednesday night.

Schrock, who has been day-to-day for the latter half of the season with a back injury, played DH (while DC Arendas manned third base) and batted second in the lineup. In his first appearance since USC's 4-3 victory last Thursday night at Vanderbilt, Schrock went 0-for-2.

"Max swung the bat very, very well today in BP, and I thought he hit a couple of balls on the nose tonight," said Holbrook. "I think he was feeling good."

Bright, making his first start since USC played Alabama on April 25, was back at his regular position in right field. The junior, who suffered a hyper-extended elbow midway through the season, batted eighth and went 0-for-2 with a strikeout. Bright also had two put-outs in the outfield.

"I just wanted to get him in there and get him some at-bats because I think we're going to need Connor in the postseason," said Holbrook of Bright, who is batting .331 on the season. "He's been ready as far as his BP, but this was his first live pitching he's seen in about a month probably, so he's probably a little bit behind the eight ball."

Holbrook said he doesn't know whether Schrock or Bright will play tomorrow against Florida, and that he struggled to decide whether to include them in the lineup Wednesday night.

"I wrestled with that lineup," Holbrook said. "I had about three lineups, two of them with Connor in it, and one of them without him, and I went with the one with Connor in.

"I need to get him some at-bats, but it just didn't work out tonight."

DÉJÀ VU. If watching Mississippi State barely squeeze past a 12-seed on Tuesday night, then go on to outmuscle the Gamecocks Wednesday night felt oddly familiar, it's probably because the exact thing happened in last year's SEC Tournament.

Like this season, the Bulldogs earned the No. 5 seed in the 2013 tourney. Just to make it into the double-elimination stage, Mississippi State had to play 17 innings of deadlocked baseball against Missouri, who finished the 2013 season 18-32, before pulling out a 2-1 victory with a walk-off, RBI-single in the bottom of the 17th.

The 2013 Bulldogs would play South Carolina the next night, beating the Gamecocks 5-3. Mississippi State repeated that run this time around, needing 10 innings to beat 12th-seeded Georgia 5-4 Tuesday night before thrashing South Carolina 12-0 in seven innings Wednesday night.

Coincidentally enough, the loss to the Bulldogs will again pit the Gamecocks against the tournament's No. 1 seed (Florida) in the losers bracket Thursday. In 2013, USC faced top-seeded Vanderbilt, who beat the Gamecocks 4-3 in 10 innings to eliminate them from the tournament.

THE RICH GET RICHER. While South Carolina's struggles in Hoover continued with its embarrassing loss Wednesday night, Mississippi State could add another bullet point to its ever-growing resume of success at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

With the 12-0 victory, the Bulldogs improved to 62-46 all-time in the SEC Tournament and 10-2 over the last three years. Mississippi State also improved to 8-1 all-time against the Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament.

THE WHOLE SERIES. South Carolina still holds a 36-30 lead in the all-time series against Mississippi State. But the Bulldogs have won four of their last five meetings with the Gamecocks, dating back to last season.

DOING THEIR PART. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, two teams competing with South Carolina for one NCAA Tournament national seed, did their part for USC in day two of the tournament Wednesday, even if the Gamecocks couldn't make the most of the opening that was created for them.

Vanderbilt (41-17) fell 11-1 to LSU Wednesday in a game that was also called in the seventh inning because of the SEC Tournament's 10-run mercy rule. And the Rebels (40-17) lost 2-1 to Arkansas to drop into the losers bracket.

The two teams will square off Thursday at 9:30 a.m. CT in a win-or-go-home scenario.

NEXT UP. The Gamecocks fall to the losers bracket and will play No. 7 Florida, who lost 4-2 to Kentucky earlier Wednesday, in a win-or-go-home situation at roughly 12:30 p.m. CT Thursday.


(All times Central)

Tuesday, May 20
Game 1                 Vanderbilt 3, Tennessee 2.
Game 2                 Arkansas 4, Texas A&M 0.
Game 3               Kentucky 7, Alabama 1.
Game 4                 Mississippi State 5, Georgia 4.

Wednesday, May 21
Game 5                 LSU 11, Vanderbilt 1.
Game 6                 Arkansas 2, Ole Miss 1.
Game 7                 Kentucky 4, Florida 2.
Game 8                 Mississippi State 12, South Carolina 0.

Thursday, May 22
Game 9                 9:30 a.m.             Vanderbilt vs. Ole Miss [SPSO]
Game 10              TBD                        Florida vs. South Carolina [SPSO]
Game 11              4:30 p.m.             LSU vs. Arkansas [CSS]
Game 12              TBD                        Kentucky vs. Mississippi State [CSS]

Friday, May 23
Game 13              3:00 p.m.             Winner Game 9 vs. Loser Game 11 [CSS]
Game 14              TBD                        Winner Game 10 vs. Loser 12 [CSS]

Saturday, May 24
Game 15              Noon                     Winner Game 13 vs. Winner Game 11 [ESPNEWS]
Game 16              TBD                        Winner Game 14 vs. Winner Game 12 [ESPNEWS]

Sunday, May 25
Game 17              3:30 p.m.             Winner Game 15 vs. Winner Game 16 [ESPN2]

[SPSO] - SportSouth; [CSS] - Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast;
All games available in HD and on WatchESPN and/or ESPN3

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