In one of the more tense moments of South Carolina's 5-2 NCAA Tournament victory over Campbell Friday night, sophomore Marcus Mooney was as calm and collected as a fifth-year senior.
South Carolina was clinging to a 3-1 lead and hadn't scored since the first inning when Mooney came up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the eighth. Facing Campbell's best pitcher, submarine-throwing senior closer Ryan Thompson, with two men on base, Mooney stayed patient at the plate.
The sophomore worked the count to 2-2, leaving plenty of time for junior Tanner English to steal second, which gave the Gamecocks two runners in scoring position.
Following a tip from USC hitting coach Brian Buscher, Mooney was looking for a slider away in the zone, and got one in the fifth pitch of the at bat. The sophomore - playing in his first-ever NCAA Tournament game - pounced on the pitch, sending it into shallow right field to drive in two runs and give South Carolina a healthy 5-1 lead going into the ninth inning.
"Marcus is a tough cookie," said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. "He'll fight and scratch and claw. He's the kind of guy you want to have up there. Nasty righty, sidewinder, submariner - our two righties that handle those guys best are Pankake and Mooney.
"He battled there and stuck his nose on it and hit the ball to right field. He knew the guy was probably pitching away, and he did, and it was a big hit for us. Boy, it was a big hit."
If Mooney seemed unfazed in the pressure-filled moment, perhaps it was because he had other things on his mind.
On a night where he went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and walk, Mooney entered his last at-bat still troubled by a baserunning error he made in the fifth inning. Mooney led off the frame with a single into left field, but tried to stretch it into a double and was tagged out well short of the bag.
"After my baserunning blunder there in the earlier inning that took us out of the inning, I really just wanted to help my team score some more runs - just do anything to help my team after that mistake," Mooney said.
All in all, Mooney may have overcompensated for an error that didn't turn out to be all that costly. But Holbrook, who said things might have played out differently if the Gamecocks had entered the ninth inning with just a 3-1 lead, didn't mind.
"That was an awfully big hit for sure, and it gave us a little bit of breathing room," said Holbrook.
LINEUP REUNION. As promised earlier in the week, sophomore Max Schrock and junior Connor Bright were back in the lineup for South Carolina's NCAA Tournament opener. Holbrook said Monday he would struggle with finding a place for the oft-injured starters in the lineup.
The second-year coach made the pieces fit by placing Schrock at DH, moving Gene Cone from right field to left and filling the open spot at right field with Bright. Junior outfielder Patrick Harrington ( batting average) and Jordan Gore () were the odd men out.
The moves paid off immediately, as Schrock went 3-for-5 with a run scored, Cone went 2-for-3 with a walk and Bright went 1-for-4.
"Obviously, it's not difficult to see that our lineup is very much different when Max is in the game," Holbrook said. "He can do a number of things.
"Connor is getting there. He's rusty, but he can change the game with one swing, and that's why I like having him in there. I think he's missed close to six or seven weeks it seems, and he's still one of our leaders in doubles for the season. He can get some extra-base hits for you and some big hits for you."
Getting Schrock and Bright back for good leaves South Carolina's lineup without many easy outs. But it also helps the team from a psychological standpoint, Holbrook said.
"It makes our team feel a little bit better. It's a different morale. It's a different feel for our lineup when those two are in there for us."
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE. South Carolina has now won 28 straight postseason games at home, including 17 at Carolina Stadium. The Gamecocks haven't lost an NCAA Tournament game at home since game two of a Super Regional series against Miami in 2002.
But Holbrook has no interest in discussing the streak, especially as the Gamecocks focus on making it out of the Regional.
"Honestly, we don't think about the last 17 or 18 - I couldn't even tell you how many it was," said Holbrook. "We're just trying to win that game. A lot of the players in our dugout, they weren't part of the streak.
"These group of guys want to win the next game. It's unfair for them to have to carry the burden of a streak. That's not their responsibility because it's baseball. We're going to lose a game. This streak isn't going to last forever. We're going to have to find a way - it might be tomorrow night - we're going to have to play out of the losers bracket in Carolina Stadium at some point. It's going to happen."
Still, Holbrook said, the proof is in the pudding. South Carolina is 33-5 at home this season and 10-11 away from Carolina Stadium. That home field advantage is only amplified in the postseason, when Gamecock fans are louder than ever.
"It was very exciting," said Mooney after his first NCAA Tournament game Friday. "I came down on the field thinking it was opening day all over again. That helped a lot, especially when our fans got all pumped up."
"We've won some games here that were in the balance, that were tough games, and our crowd gets into it," Holbrook said. "Any time you're in a place where you've found to win a lot of games ... psychologically, you're always in a good place. And I think that's what Carolina Stadium creates for our players."
CONE COMES THROUGH. With a leadoff single in the bottom of the second inning, freshman outfielder Gene Cone reached base for the seventh consecutive game. But he wasn't done yet.
Cone later earned his third multi-hit game of the season with a two-out single in the sixth inning, and finished 2-for-3 with a walk. The freshman continued to impress with a terrific plate approach, making pitchers work for every strike and battling in every at-bat. He was one of three USC players - along with Mooney and Schrock - to finish with more than one hit.
UP NEXT. The Gamecocks will square off against No. 2 Maryland in the winners bracket.
"Maryland's a terrific team," said Holbrook. "They've beaten Florida State. They've beaten Virginia. They have some older guys. They're physical, athletic. They can run in some spots. They can hit for power in some spots.
"It's going to be a tall order for us, and I'm sure we'll get their best shot. We're going to need to be able to play our best to be able to win it. They're a terrific team. They play in a really good league. They beat some really good people, so we're going to need to bring it tomorrow to have a chance to win in a winners bracket game."
NO COMMENT. As Chad Holbrook was exiting the press conference, one media member asked what he thought about Clemson's 18-1 loss to Oregon earlier Friday in the Nashville Regional. Holbrook shook his head, smiled and declined to answer. He chose instead to continue walking out.
UPDATED TOURNAMENT BRACKET.
Friday, May 30
Game 1 - Maryland 4, Old Dominion 3.
Game 2 - South Carolina 5, Campbell 2.
Saturday, May 31
Game 3 - No. 3 Old Dominion vs. No. 4 Campbell - 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 4 - No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 1 South Carolina - 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Sunday, June 1
Game 5 - Winner of Game 3 vs. Loser of Game 4 - 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 6 - Winner of Game 5 vs. Winner of Game 4 - 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Monday, June 2
Game 7 - If necessary - 7 p.m. (ESPN3)