VIDEO: Max Schrock
South Carolina came into the Kentucky series reeling, having been swept at Florida and knowing that the next nine games would determine the season. The line was drawn in the sand.
There are still six games to go, but there are no complaints about the first steps over that line.
The No. 18 Gamecocks swept the No. 17 Wildcats with a 3-1 win on Sunday, riding a sterling performance from left-hander Jack Wynkoop (5-2) and a mammoth home run from LB Dantzler. USC had a slight hiccup when Colby Holmes, summoned to close the game, walked his only batter on four pitches, but answered another question when closer Tyler Webb entered the game and hummed 12 of his 14 pitches for strikes and his 12th save.
Joey Pankake ended the game with a flawless defensive play, ranging deep into the hole at short, picking up the ball and flipping to Chase Vergason at third base for the force. It was symbolic of the weekend and the resolve of this edition of the Gamecocks - USC (31-10, 11-7 SEC) won't blow anybody away, due to injuries and pitching inconsistency, and has to win by being tougher, fighting harder, than the other guys. Pankake, with 14 errors on the season, mimicked Ozzie Smith on the game's final play, and as coach Chad Holbrook said, "saved our rear end."
Had to have them, and they got them. No rest for the weary, but the remainder of Sunday could be enjoyed a bit.
"It was a big weekend for our team. That's an understatement," Holbrook said. "I'm proud of our team that they didn't let it go south."
Forced to use relief ace Adam Westmoreland twice in a doubleheader on Saturday, Holbrook knew that Sunday might get rough in a hurry if his third pitcher mimicked the other third pitchers for most of the season. Wynkoop, though, threw the best game of his young career, giving up nine hits but only one unearned run in eight innings.
He allowed a runner in every frame, but the only one that scored was due to an error by Dantzler. Wynkoop struck out three and walked none as he threw 100 pitches.
"Everything felt good," the freshman said. "Just tried to mix my pitches well and get ahead of hitters. I did a good job of that today. I just minimized the damage. I was just telling myself between innings, 'Just get three more.'"
With his pitching looking more and more like it wouldn't have to use the bullpen, Holbrook could relax and hope that his offense would come around. On a windy day, the breeze often whipping the flags in center field toward the plate, chances for fly balls to drop seemed sparse.
But after Dantzler booted the ball that came around to score in the fourth, he came to the plate with Pankake on first base. Corey Littrell's second pitch tailed in and Dantzler smashed it to dead center field, into the wind.
"I didn't think it had a chance of going out," Dantzler said. "I knew I hit it well, but watching the balls (A.J.) Reed hit for them, I thought he crushed a couple that got caught.
(I was thinking) 'That sucks, just a long fly-out.'"
But as Holbrook pointed out, the wind had died just before Dantzler swung. As he was thinking that now would be a good time to get one into the air, Dantzler's bat produced it.
The ball kept carrying before it dropped neatly over the center-field fence, where it bounded against the batter's eye. USC estimated the blast at 410 feet; it was Dantzler's team-high 12th homer of the season.
"I was standing on deck, and when it hit the batter's eye, I just said, 'Wow,'" Max Schrock said. "That was incredible."
The Gamecocks scored another run in the fifth when Pankake singled to score Graham Saiko, and it held until the eighth as Wynkoop weaved his way out of trouble. As Dantzler fielded a grounder to retire the side in the eighth, Holbrook went to the bullpen.
Holmes, the anointed closer while Webb was hurting, threw four straight balls and was immediately lifted. Webb, who had been fighting arm soreness for the past week, had thrown on Saturday but said he felt good. Having warmed up and having told Holbrook that he was good, Holbrook sent him in.
Webb struck out Paul McConkey on three pitches and Micheal Thomas on four. Lucas Witt singled to put two on, but Zac Zellers' grounder skipped just in reach of Pankake to end the game.
Wynkoop handled the pitching, Dantzler had the offense and Schrock played a marvelous game at second base, with five assists and one putout. The Gamecocks picked themselves up from the Florida series and prepared to go to LSU next week.
"There was definitely a sense of urgency," Schrock said. "I think we played up to that standard this weekend."