Relief sometimes comes at the very moment you need it most.
That was the case for No. 2 South Carolina when it was clinging for dear life down three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning against No. 22 Tennessee Saturday night.
But it was also the case for USC sophomore Max Schrock, who stepped to the plate as the Gamecocks' only hope with just one out remaining and a runner on first in the final frame.
Schrock was scuffling entering the at-bat. A second-degree ankle sprain had been bothering him for weeks, and he was hitless in his last 17 at-bats.
USC head coach Chad Holbrook said he "called (Schrock) out" after the 14-inning series opener against Tennessee, when Schrock went 0-6.
"I thought his body language has been bad, and he's feeling sorry for himself," Holbrook said of Schrock, whose last hit came on a two-run homer two weeks ago against Ole Miss. "We try to pride ourselves around here on not having sour body language, feeling sorry for yourself."
"It's very, very difficult to hit a baseball, and Max has been hurt. He's not 100 percent, and he's giving us all he can give us. 0-17 is not Max Schrock. He's a gifted hitter, but I'm also asking him to play when he hurt."
Battered and reeling in the ninth inning, Schrock and the Gamecocks got exactly what they needed most. The sophomore yanked Tennessee right-hander Josh Peterson's 1-1 pitch over the right field wall and just inside the foul pole for a two-run home run, shaving the Volunteers' lead to 6-5.
The Carolina Stadium crowd went wild as Schrock rounded the bases, and the momentum Tennessee had carried since it plated four runs in the second inning was visibly slipping out of grasp.
Joey Pankake reached on a dropped fly ball in right field a batter later, Kyle Martin walked and Connor Bright was hit by a pitch on a 2-2 count, all setting the stage for Grayson Greiner's game-winning grand slam over the left field wall.
Holbrook said Schrock had been begging to play even while recovering from the ankle sprain, and that it was good to see him get a good swing on the ball. Holbrook expects more of the same as Schrocks inches back to 100 percent.
"He just needs a couple knocks to fall in for him, and he'll get it going again," Holbrook said. "And I think his ankle is getting better every day, so I think as he gets closer to 100 percent, he'll pick it up a notch."
GREAT SCOTT. Freshman pitcher Reed Scott took the mound in the fourth inning to stop the bleeding and did so well Holbrook kept him in for the rest of the game.
Scott entered the game after left-hander Vince Fiori allowed the first two batters of the fourth inning to reach base. He gave up two singles and allowed two runs - both charged to Fiori - to score, but navigated out of the inning quickly to avoid further damage.
The right-hander struck out two batters and got a third to ground out to escape the jam, stranding two Volunteer batters.
Scott allowed just two more hits and two walks to shut out Tennessee over the final six innings, giving the Gamecocks a chance to recover from a 6-0 deficit.
For Holbrook, Scott's performance was eerily similar to his outing two weeks ago against Ole Miss, when he tossed six scoreless innings in USC's 5-4 comeback victory.
"He gave us a chance to have that incredible comeback against Ole Miss, and it was the same script almost," Holbrook said. "We put him in early in the game, and he kept them at bay. He's hard to hit, and he can throw strikes, and if you've got a defense behind him, he can be very, very effective. And he was again today."
Scott said he was just trying to pitch like the score was 0-0, and that he had faith in his teammates.
"My defense was playing really well today, so I knew if I just threw strikes and kept hitters off balance that my defense would get me out of situations like they did," Scott said. "I just knew our hitters would score runs and would get us back into the game."
Holbrook was grateful after Saturday's games to have a dependable arm like Scott's in the bullpen.
"I'm proud of a lot of kids in that locker room, but I'm very proud of Reed for what he's been able to give us," Holbrook said.
CELEK KEEPS IT ALIVE. Lost in the frenzy over Greiner's walk-off grand slam are some of the plays that set it up. One that Holbrook pointed to after the game was Brison Celek's two-out single in the bottom of the ninth.
After South Carolina's first two batters of the inning went down quickly, Holbrook pinch-hit Celek for Tanner English, placing the team's slim chances on the broad shoulders of one of its two seniors.
And Celek, as he has in three out of his four pinch-hit appearances this season, delivered. The senior drove Peterson's 2-1 pitch up the middle for a single, starting a two-out rally that wouldn't end until the Gamecocks had claimed the 9-6 victory.
"We don't win the game without that big hit," Holbrook said.
Holbrook said Celek's selflessness exemplifies the attitude that has made USC so good this season.
"He could be a starter," Holbrook said. "He's a senior, and he's been around the block. And his attitude is not about 'me.' He's kept a great attitude, even though he's not starting every day, and he made a case where he could start if you watched all his scrimmages and stuff.
"That's the kind of example I use because one, I'm proud of Brison, but that's what you have to have to have a special group of kids. They're a joy to coach when you have a team-first attitude, and I think that's what we have in our dugout."
AN UNLIKELY HERO. It's safe to say the odds were against freshman infielder Jordan Gore when he strode to the plate in the 14th inning of South Carolina's 3-2 win over Tennessee in the first game Saturday.
Gore was 2-17 on the season coming into the at-bat - his first plate appearance of the day. He'd never hit a home run. He'd never even hit a double. Even Holbrook was surprised by what the freshman did at the plate with the Gamecocks and Volunteers tied 2-2.
"I'm proud of Jordan Gore too for that first one," Holbrook said. "Who would have thought a 145-pound beanpole would hit a walk-off home run?
Gore, who entered the game as a defensive replacement at second base after Celek pinch-hit for DC Arendas in the bottom of the 11th inning, said he felt comfortable going up to the plate.
"I was just trying to square it up, hit it hard," said Gore, adding he was "pretty sure" the pitch was a fastball.
Gore said he wasn't thinking a lot while rounding the bases.
"I was thinking we just won the game, so I was happy," Gore said.
Holbrook marveled at Gore's walk-off even moments after Greiner's walk-off grand slam in Saturday's second game.
"I think it's the first ball I've seen him hit out of here in three weeks, and that includes about 50 swings a day in batting practice," Holbrook said. "If that doesn't tell you it was our day, I don't know what will."
HOT OFF THE GRIDDLE. Pankake extended his hitting streak to 14 games when he hit a hard grounder at Tennessee third baseman Taylor Smart in the bottom of the fourth. Taylor Smart couldn't handle it, and it was ruled a hit by USC officials. Pankake finished the game 2-4 with an RBI and two runs scored.
ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE. South Carolina improved to 11-0 when scoring six or more runs, 11-2 in game decided by three runs or less and 21-2 when out-hitting the opponent.
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