VIDEO: Joey Pankake, Brison Celek
Their second baseman lost after a nasty collision, their middle relief again in question after giving up a three-run ninth-inning lead, South Carolina could see its feel-good after another weekend sweep slipping away. Losing a second straight midweek game, especially when another injury that will definitely affect the team going forward had just occurred, was going to have the No. 11 Gamecocks feeling awfully sour before another huge weekend series.
Joey Pankake would have none of it.
Pankake belted the second pitch he saw into the left field bullpen for a solo home run and a 6-5 walk-off win over The Citadel on Tuesday, giving the Gamecocks another clutch hit after spending the past weekend at Tennessee collecting them by the bucketful. USC thought it had the game clinched when pinch-hitter Brison Celek added to his impressive streak by singling home the go-ahead run in the seventh, but the Gamecocks' relief pitching gave up a 5-2 lead in the ninth.
Evan Beal and Curt Britt, who pitched the ninth in relief of Jack Wynkoop, were kicking themselves for letting the Bulldogs (17-17) back in the game, and knew that their own reserves were running low. Coach Chad Holbrook had to keep going to his bench, to score runs and to play the field after Max Schrock sustained a mild concussion in the third, and was about out of options.
But the heart of his order was coming up in the ninth, led by Pankake in the three-hole, and Holbrook knew that Pankake, despite sometimes frustrating the hell out of his coach with his inconsistent play, was an outstanding hitter. David Rivera (4-1) threw a slider for ball one and Pankake knew that the next pitch was going to be something he could drive.
He got it, and did. The ball splashed down in The Citadel's bullpen as relief poured out of the USC dugout in one battle-uniformed tidal wave.
"I put a little pressure on myself more this year," Pankake said after hitting his sixth homer of the season, second on the team. "I think I'm a better player than I showed last year. I've left a lot of runners on base. There are still a lot of improvements that need to be made."
"Obviously, he put a good swing on it," Holbrook said. "We've been in some games like this before. You always feel good when you're at home and you're tied - you got the last crack at it. I felt like we still had a good opportunity to win the game."
They did, and they did. USC (27-7) didn't play perfectly, but it played well enough to win in a short week before heading back on the SEC road.
"We feel very fortunate to win the game," Holbrook said. "I'm always on edge with those guys. The middle of their lineup is as good as any team we've played this year. We needed to feel good going into a big and tough weekend this weekend."
For a while, it looked as if The Citadel would mimic Furman from last week in handing the Gamecocks a loss. The Bulldogs jumped on starter Joel Seddon for two runs in the first inning, and USC couldn't get anything going. A bases-loaded opportunity vanished in the third, the same frame where Schrock was taken out of the game, and a double play ended a potential rally in the fourth.
But Dante Rosenberg connected for the first homer of his career to start the fifth, and the speedy Tanner English made a shallow fly ball from Chase Vergason count to tie the game. That was it until the seventh, reliever Vince Fiori shutting the Bulldogs down, until a Bulldog rally got Wynkoop in the game.
Wynkoop ended a threat with runners at the corners and two outs, and USC came to the plate. Vergason singled with one out, and moved to second when LB Dantzler walked; Holbrook sent up pinch-hitter Kyle Martin for DC Arendas to force a pitching change from The Citadel, and once James Reeves entered, he yanked Martin back and sent up Celek.
The Charleston native, riding the best hitting streak of his career, came through one more time with a single up the box to take the lead. Still with two outs, Connor Bright singled and then Grayson Greiner ripped a double to center field that skipped under the glove of the diving Jason Smith.
Ahead 5-2, USC got to the ninth and pulled Wynkoop with two on, one out and cleanup hitter Bo Thompson at the plate. Beal induced a pop-up for the second out, but then Smith hit an infield single and Beal walked Drew DeKerlegand on four pitches.
Britt relieved and Johnathan Stokes singled to left to tie the game. The Gamecocks got out of the inning but were plenty steamed that they might have let one get away.
"It wouldn't have been happy in the locker room, that's for sure," Greiner said. "Giving up a three-run lead, it kind of takes your spirits down a little bit. But Joey came up with the big hit there that kind of saved us."
He did, and USC bounced into a three-game series at Florida, beginning on Thursday. The Gamecocks will leave on Wednesday, hopefully with Schrock aboard the bus, but were confident that they could keep finding ways to win even if the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week can't play.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," Pankake said. "We had to work it out."