FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Adam Matthews gave the new addition to his face - a red goatee - a quick stroke in the post-game.
"I credit this," the senior co-captain said after Sunday's nutty 10-7 win over No. 18 Arkansas. "I've never had facial hair, so I was like, 'Let's mix it up a little bit.' I'm hitting about .200 on the year, so I figured I'd grow some."
With baseball players being a rather superstitious lot - a fish? - the goatee is sure to stay in place for No. 5 South Carolina's next series. Matthews started USC's 10-run outburst with a two-strike, two-out RBI single in the seventh inning and changed the entire complexion of the game with not one, but two runners thrown out at the plate.
The first was when USC had just squandered a leadoff double and was facing a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the sixth inning. Matt Price was summoned to relieve Forrest Koumas, and faced Derrick Bleeker, who lifted a fly ball to shallow right field.
A run seemed probable to score - it's a tough play to make, and Matthews has just three assists in his four-year career (with two this year). But the senior backed up a step, came forward, gloved, exchanged and threw.
The perfect strike zipped in where Grayson Greiner waited. Two feet from the plate, Greiner grabbed and slapped the tag on Jacob Mahan for an inning-ending double play.
"I was just trying to keep the ball low, (Evan) Marzilli was telling me to throw through the (cut-off man)," Matthews said. "That's what we work on. You get it up the line like that, Grayson can catch it and get that runner."
That shorted out an Arkansas opportunity and opened the door for USC's four-run seventh (which Matthews began). Then when the Razorbacks started coming back in the bottom of the seventh with five straight singles, Matthews again saved the day.
Mahan drilled a single through the gap as Jake Wise tore around third base and headed home. Matthews charged, gloved, exchanged and threw again - the play was closer, but as Wise slid head-first, Greiner caught the ball and tagged his foot before his hand hit the plate.
Wise was so incensed at being called out that he pulled his knees under him and slammed his helmet in the ground, which caused umpire Jeff Head to immediately eject him. That changed the Razorbacks' lineup - Arkansas went through four catchers on Sunday.
Matthews finished 1-for-3 with the RBI and two terrific plays, each reminiscent of Jake Williams' memorable outfield throw to the plate during last year's national championship series. As he grinned and accepted the handshakes, the goatee jutted out.
"It'll stay for the weekend," Matthews promised.
NO PRESSURE: It was a bit lost in the shuffle of a crazy final three innings, but Koumas started just his second game of the season and performed extremely well. The sophomore, who entered the game with an ERA over 7.00 and had only thrown one inning since March 31, shut down an Arkansas offense that had generated 17 hits on Saturday (and would eventually slap 10 base knocks off Price).
"We got a great start from Forrest Koumas," coach Ray Tanner said. "He was spectacular. It kind of got lost, but it didn't get lost for me."
Koumas yielded five hits and two walks, but struck out four and didn't allow a run in 5 1-3 innings. He did plunk two batters - his nemesis - but stayed out of trouble for the most part.
It was a relief to see it, especially after Koumas had missed all of April with soreness in his throwing elbow and with starter Colby Holmes laid up. If Holmes remains out - he will be re-examined this week to see if he can play against Georgia this weekend - Koumas could have earned himself another start.
The freshman was magnificent last year, responding in every pressure-cooker situation that the Gamecocks placed him in. He started his first career game at Florida, ranked No. 1 at the time; he started against Alabama after USC lost Game 1 and was trying to clinch the SEC regular-season championship; and he started Game 1 of the national championship series. He also earned his first career win in relief against Clemson.
GRAYSON GUNNER: Greiner threw out five Arkansas base-stealers during the series, while also handling two relay throws to the plate that caught runners and blocking two dirt balls with a man on third, any one of which could have won the game on Friday. It was quite a sight to see the 6-foot-6 freshman rise from his crouch, flip his mask away and fire exactly to the same spot every time - the right side of second base, low, as the glove was there to meet it as the runner slid into it.
HEATING UP: It wasn't a fluke that second baseman Chase Vergason, hovering around .200 on the year, cracked a home run against Arkansas in Game 2 of the series. Vergason hit ninth on Sunday and went 3-for-4 with two doubles and two RBIs.
"I just kept on swinging," Vergason said. "I had a rough start, came back strong, that's all you can do in this game."
Vergason was such an afterthought on offense that although he was solid on defense, he was benched for most of the early part of the season. The Gamecocks' offense was so in need that Tanner was starting Erik Payne, a natural third baseman and third-string catcher who had never played second base, at the bag.
But Vergason got back in the games and has been a staple since. The defense has tightened and now the offense is beginning to come around. Vergason is up to .243 for the season.
OUTTA HERE: Wise was ejected for slamming his helmet in the dirt, but won't have to sit out an extra game. The SEC's rulebook says that every player, like every coach, gets one "free" ejection per season, with additional punishments/suspensions occurring after the second.
If Wise had been thrown out for fighting, he would have had to sit, but he was only thrown out for removing his helmet and causing a potential harmful situation. It was the second time this season where an opposing player has gotten ejected when playing USC - Auburn shortstop Dan Glevenyak was tossed when he was rung up on a called strike three to end a bases-loaded situation in the ninth inning of an 11-7 game.
Glevenyak had to sit out an extra game because of a loophole in the rule. If a player is thrown out after the game - as Glevenyak was, since the call ended the game and he mouthed off to the umpire afterward - he does trigger a one-game suspension.
As it was, Wise was tossed and put Arkansas in a bind. Backup catcher John Clay Reeves had gotten hit with a bat during Saturday's Game 2 and had to leave (diagnosis was a bruised arm). With Wise out, the Razorbacks suited up pitcher Colby Suggs, who handled a few batters before Reeves hurriedly decided that he could play and ran to the mound. He was so desperate to get Suggs out of the game that he removed Suggs' mask for him while meeting on the mound.
Reeves was later replaced by pinch-hitter Jimmy Bosco. Bosco batted, but then shortstop Tim Carver donned the gear and caught the remainder of the game.
SLOWLY BUT SURELY: Historically, USC has still been awful in Arkansas. Since joining the league, the Gamecocks are a mere 2-7 in series at Baum Stadium.
But the two have been the last two.
OUCH!: An early foul ball ripped into USC's dugout and smacked pitcher Logan Munson on his non-throwing arm. Munson, according to Tanner, got hit in the "meat" of his arm.
There wasn't a diagnosis after the game but Munson has only thrown five innings this season.
WORKING: Joey Pankake, who has made some very fine plays at shortstop this year but ones that have often been overshadowed by 16 errors, is doing everything he can to tighten up his defense. Before Sunday's game, Pankake was in the USC bullpen taking some personal infield practice.
A player would throw balls hard into the fake turf in the bullpen and Pankake would practice playing bad hops, with his glove on the left and then on the right. The freshman has also been getting personal instruction from assistant coach Sammy Esposito and graduate assistant coach Drew Meyer, himself a part of USC's storied line of shortstops.
THE COUNTDOWN: Carolina Stadium's lifetime attendance sits at 994,327, just 5,673 away from an even 1 million. The mark is expected to be surpassed at the next home game, which is at 7 p.m. on Wednesday against Furman.
Plans to honor the 1 millionth fan through the gates are expected to be announced early this week. There have been no declarations yet.
NOW PITCHING … : Tanner said that Wednesday's starting pitcher is likely to be Joel Seddon, who started last week against Davidson. Nolan Belcher and Adam Westmoreland, plus potentially Patrick Sullivan, also could get some work.
Tanner said that Tyler Webb and Price, each of whom logged a lot of time against Arkansas, will likely not pitch.
Team SEC Overall
South Carolina 16-8 36-12
Kentucky 15-9 37-11
Florida 14-10 35-13
Georgia 12-12 28-20
Vanderbilt 11-13 23-24
Tennessee 8-16 23-24
LSU 16-8 38-11
Arkansas 12-12 34-15
Mississippi State 12-12 29-18
Ole Miss 11-13 31-18
Auburn 10-14 25-22
Alabama 7-17 18-30
Alabama 8, Mississippi State 7
South Carolina 10, Arkansas 7
Georgia 9, Auburn 3
LSU 12, Ole Miss 3
Vanderbilt 12, Tennessee 6
Next week's series
Alabama at Kentucky
Auburn at Arkansas
Mississippi State at Florida
South Carolina at Georgia
Vanderbilt at LSU
Tennessee at Ole Miss
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