If South Carolina's 4-3, 13-inning loss Saturday didn't illustrate that the Gamecocks were running low on their usual magic, USC's 6-5 loss Sunday afternoon might have done the trick.
The wheels came off down the stretch for No. 5 USC in its weekend rubber match against No. 15 Florida Sunday at Carolina Stadium. The Gamecocks entered the eighth inning ahead 4-2, but gave up four runs in the top of the frame and never recovered.
Along with the series, USC (28-7, 8-7 SEC) also lost its place at the top of the SEC East, where Florida (21-13, 9-6 SEC) now sits alone.
"Obviously it's a disappointing loss, disappointing series loss," said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. "We had a chance to win all three games, and really just couldn't hold a lead there as far as today's game."
Freshman right-hander Wil Crowe (6-2) gave up just two runs - both unearned - during his first seven innings on the mound, but the Gamecocks never pulled away from the Gators when given the chance.
USC stranded 12 runners on the day, including seven in the first three innings, squandering chance after chance to put the game out of reach.
"Like yesterday, we had opportunities to win," Holbrook said. "Our guys competed and played their tails off as best they could. Sure, we could have done some things better.
"We couldn't make the big plays when it counted - or the big pitches - or get the big hit. That pretty much sums up the weekend."
Playing without Connor Bright (hyper-extended right elbow), Max Schrock (sickness) and Joey Pankake (left in the fourth inning with a strained hamstring), the Gamecocks erased a 2-1 third-inning deficit to take a comfortable 4-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh.
But Crowe began wearing down in the top of the eighth, getting one out before surrendering three straight singles. Taylor Widener relieved Crowe with the bases loaded, but struggled mightily.
The freshman right-hander, who also went 1-5 with an RBI as the DH, allowed four runs to score before being removed, and didn't record an out.
An error by shortstop Marcus Mooney on a potential inning-ending double-play ball allowed two Gator baserunners to score. Widener gave up an RBI double off the wall to the next batter, Zack Powers, then surrendered the fourth run of the inning when Buddy Reed chopped an RBI single over DC Arendas' glove at third base.
For Holbrook, it was painful to watch the nightmarish inning play out.
"Baseball's a cruel, cruel game sometimes," Holbrook said, adding that it was unfair of him to put Widener in the game with the bases loaded and one out.
It was equally agonizing for South Carolina's players, who scored one run when Jordan Gore homered in the bottom of the eighth, but went down in order in the ninth inning to conclude the weekend.
"It is tough," said junior first baseman Kyle Martin, who went 2-5 from the plate and scored two runs. "I thought we had it in the bag today, but just couldn't hang onto it. Same as yesterday."
Holbrook said he doesn't think the Gamecocks have played to their potential in SEC play, but that they aren't far from where they need to be right now.
"We have to dust ourselves off and get back to work," Holbrook said. "We'll see if we can play better."
Injury notes: Holbrook said after the game he didn't know yet how serious Joey Pankake's strained hamstring would be, but that the team needs to be able to play without him.
"We've got to make plans to play without him," Holbrook said. "We've got to make plans to play without Max (Schrock, who missed the game with sickness) and Joey. We've got to play the healthy guys."
Holbrook said after the game that he was proud of the way some of his reserve players stepped up in relief of USC's ailing stars.
Patrick Harrington went 0-2 with an RBI and two walks while filling in for Connor Bright in left field. Gene Cone went 1-3 at the plate playing right field and left field, and Jordan Gore went 1-2 with a run scored and an RBI, entering the game after Joey Pankake's injury.
"I was proud of the players that I put in there that hadn't normally played," Holbrook said, adding that he may need to re-evaluate his lineup based on the play of his reserves. "They gave me everything they had, and I thought they competed their rear ends off, as did our entire team."
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