Six days after snapping a five-game losing streak at Auburn, No. 11 South Carolina earned its fifth-straight victory with a 9-3 drubbing of No. 8 Alabama Friday night at Carolina Stadium.
The Gamecocks (33-10, 11-8 SEC) churned out 10 hits and got a steady night on the mound from Jordan Montgomery, Cody Mincey and Joel Seddon to knock the Crimson Tide (28-14, 12-7) out of its tie with No. 12 Florida for first place in the SEC.
"It was a really big win for our team," said USC head coach Chad Holbrook after the game. "We beat a really good Alabama team. It was just our night."
A sellout crowd of 8,242 filled Carolina Stadium's garnet seats to watch game one of what USC head coach Chad Holbrook billed earlier this week as the biggest series of the season, and they didn't leave without seeing some fireworks on the diamond.
The teams played a tight game until the bottom of the fourth inning, when freshman outfielder Gene Cone broke the game wide open with one swing. USC took a 3-2 earlier in the inning when Tanner English pushed a two-out RBI single through the right side to score Grayson Greiner from second, then loaded the bases a batter later when Marcus Mooney coaxed a four-pitch walk from Alabama ace Spencer Turnbull.
Cone, a Columbia native who has become a regular in the lineup of late, stepped up to the plate and blooped a bases-clearing triple down the first base line to give the Gamecocks a 6-2 lead.
Cone's hit landed just short of Alabama right fielder Ben Moore's outstretched glove as he dove toward the foul line, and it drew Crimson Tide coach Mitch Gaspard out of the dugout to speak with umpires about whether the ball landed foul or fair.
To USC's relief, the play stood.
"That was a big play for us," Holbrook said. "Baseball's a game of inches, and that one went our way."
Neither Holbrook or Cone - who drew three walks and reached base in every plate appearance - were totally sure at the time whether the ball landed fair, but both now think it was correctly ruled fair.
"It just looked like he (Moore) hit it on the way down right before it was about to hit the line. It looked fair to me," said Cone, adding that he was holding his breath as the ball dropped. "It was tough to kind of judge where it was going to hit."
Holbrook said he and USC athletic director Ray Tanner spoke on the phone after the game, and that Tanner said he watched the replay several times before concluding the ball landed fair.
"When the Godfather says the ball was fair, it was fair," Holbrook said, laughing. "He just told me it was really close.
"Sometimes you got to have a break to beat a good team, and we've had some breaks go against us. We got a break tonight, and we made the most of it."
Jordan Montgomery (6-3) helped USC hold that lead with a gutsy performance on the mound. The junior lefty gave up three singles and a run in the first inning and allowed a solo homer in the third, but settled down to carry the Gamecocks into the seventh inning with the lead.
Montgomery, who said he felt at ease pitching with a healthy lead, tossed 6 1/3 innings, giving up just two runs on eight hits and two walks while striking out eight batters.
"I was proud of Jordan Montgomery," Holbrook said. "He battled his rear end off. That team can hit, and I didn't feel comfortable there at all with a four-run lead."
USC's fifth-straight game with at least 10 hits came on a night when two of its best sluggers - Joey Pankake and Kyle Martin - went a combined 0-for-8 in the heart of the lineup. But against one of the SEC's top pitchers in Spencer Turnbull, the rest of the squad picked up the slack, with Grayson Greiner, Cone, DC Arendas and Tanner English combining to go 8-for-11 with eight RBI.
"I thought we had a really good approach against one of the premier pitchers in the SEC and the country," Greiner said. "He's got electric stuff, and I thought we had a really good approach against him all night, shortened our swings and just tried to make something happen."
The Gamecocks padded the lead with three insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth. Facing Alabama reliever Mitch Greer, Grayson Greiner led off the frame with a solo home run into the left field bleachers.
Arendas and English each came through with RBI singles later in the inning to push the score to 9-2, and junior closer Joel Seddon earned a four-out save, his 11th save of the season.
Seddon surrendered Alabama's third run in the ninth when two Crimson Tide pop-ups fell in shallow center field, the second of which drove in Ben Moore - who hit the first pop-up.
Holbrook, who said he wasn't totally comfortable even with a seven-run lead in the top of the ninth, was disappointed that USC's lack of communication in the outfield allowed the hits to drop. USC practices it too much - and Tanner English is too good a defender - for that to happen, Holbrook said.
"He's as good a defender in center field as I've ever coached, and I mean that," Holbrook said. "I include Jackie (Bradley) and Evan (Marzilli), and he's as good as it gets. He's just got to catch those balls out there in center field in the ninth inning, and had a communication breakdown there."
Even after a big win Friday night, the Gamecocks can't expect to cruise to their sixth-straight victory when they meet the Crimson Tide again Saturday at 2 p.m., Holbrook said.
"We beat a really good team," Holbrook said. "Short turnaround, and we'll try to come back and win the series tomorrow, but we'll have our hands full with that team. They're a scary bunch, especially offensively."
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