VIDEO: Ray Tanner
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Never has a game to get to 3-6 in the league meant so much.
Christian Walker smashed a tie-breaking two-run home run off the scoreboard and Jordan Montgomery retired stubborn Vanderbilt in the 13th inning on Sunday as No. 11 South Carolina won 6-4 and claimed its first SEC series of the year. The Gamecocks (20-9, 3-6) knew beforehand that they were flirting with a dubious distinction - the first team since 1992 (its inaugural year in the league) to go 0-3 in its first three SEC series. They realized it more when they blew a 4-0 lead with a mix of horrendous defense and the ever-imploding bullpen.
But USC got enough outs to stay even, Matt Price stranding three Commodores at third base from the sixth to the 11th innings, and finally got a big knock. Walker had watched teammate after teammate fail to get the job done, often seething from first base after being intentionally walked. But with Evan Marzilli on ahead of him and freshman Philip Pfeifer on the mound, Walker knew that Vanderbilt wouldn't want to put the go-ahead run at second base.
"I was surprised to see a fastball," Walker said. "But the more I thought about it, the more it really wasn't that surprising. But it was really good to get the head out there and crush the ball like that."
Walker whipped his bat around and sent the pill soaring to left, where Vanderbilt's "Green Monster" awaited. The ball kept rising until it smacked into the screen covering the scoreboard and dropped off the top of the wall and over, sending Marzilli scampering home with Walker hot on his heels.
"'Thank God,'" Walker recalled as thinking. "Thirteen innings, or whatever it was. That's a lot of baseball."
But a lot that USC is hoping will begin something good. The Gamecocks hit the halfway point of their season having struggled in conference play, but are hoping that Sunday has broken the skid and will send them forward.
Had USC lost, it would have been another piece of trash on the garbage pile. The Gamecocks would have been forced to win much more than they lose down the stretch while fighting a loss of confidence.
USC still has to win much more than it loses to qualify for the SEC tournament, usually the barometer for whether or not a team is going to the NCAA Regionals. But if the tournament began today, USC would be in - and there's no judging the momentum the Gamecocks could gain from a game that looked lost so many times, only to turn into victory.
"I hope so," coach Ray Tanner said. "I hope that we can. We've lost some close ones. If you keep battling, you'll get them back. You can't feel sorry for yourself, and you can't woe-is-me. You have to battle."
It was hard not to think of USC's charmed life of the past two seasons as the game neared extra innings and Price, who had already blown the save, was on the mound. He left the go-ahead run at third base in the sixth and seventh frames, then got an inning-ending double play to squelch a rally in the eighth.
USC was booting balls at a record pace, recording five errors over four frames, but settled down enough to keep the game even. Still, the Gamecocks' bats were infected with the same sickness as Vanderbilt's - runners died at third in the seventh and eighth and USC couldn't get anyone past second through the 12th.
Price finally tired after 84 pitches and departed after the 11th, once again leaving a man stranded by striking out Connor Harrell and Riley Reynolds with Spencer Navin on third base. Montgomery, the freshman who hails from the same town and high school that Price is from (Sumter), entered.
Montgomery left Tony Kemp on third by forcing a harmless fly ball from Connor Gregor. USC, knowing that its best hitters were at the plate, knew that time was running out.
Marzilli laced a one-out single to center but Joey Pankake flied out. Walker stepped in, knowing that Pfeifer was a left-hander and that he had poked two homers off lefties on Friday.
The pitch stayed up. Walker knew he'd never get a better chance.
"I told him, 'He might make a mistake, be ready if he makes one,'" Tanner said. "'If you hit it in the alley, Marzilli can score.' He did a little better than the alley."
Walker had a bit of fear that the giant wall in left would hold the shot, but relaxed as he approached first base. "It was one of those were you kind of just knew," he said.
The ball soared over the fence and USC at last had the lead. After so many chances where the Gamecocks put themselves in a hole, the homer turned the tables and stuck the Commodores in it. Montgomery returned to the mound, retired his first two batters, then gave up a single to Harrell.
Pinch-hitter John Norwood stepped in. Montgomery got him swinging on the fourth pitch for his second collegiate win.
"That's impressive for a guy that thought Vanderbilt was in North Carolina," Tanner cracked. "We hit the Tennessee border the other day and he wanted to know where we were going."
The smiles were back. The magic seemed back. After a rough few weeks, USC was only 3-6 in the SEC, but was heading home for two straight series with a big win to remember.
"We thought we didn't have the best first half, but we won some games," Price said. "We're just going to go out there and keep playing the way we've been playing."
On Sunday, the way finally turned to USC's favor.
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