FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - A senior co-captain in the worst slump of his career ignites a run-scoring bonanza and throws out two runners at the plate, the Friday-night pitcher smacks a two-run double and a closer seemingly sent from the heavens is knocked around worse than he ever has, but gets the job done.
Just the way it was drawn up.
Fifth-ranked South Carolina rocked No. 18 Arkansas for 10 runs over the seventh and eighth innings on Sunday, beating the Razorbacks 10-7 and clinching the series in a game that had a little bit of everything. Besides the others, there was an ejection, a hitter hovering around .200 all season belting two doubles - and the game was scoreless through six innings, with a combined five hits (all by Arkansas).
Pardon coach Ray Tanner if he didn't really know what to say. It was one of those where the boxscore, tape and statistics don't need to be that thoroughly discussed - USC won, retaining its one-game lead in the SEC East and tie for the overall SEC lead with LSU, and that's all that mattered.
"This game never ceases to amaze me," Tanner said, staring at the Baum Stadium turf and shaking his head as if there was maybe one more runner coming to the plate. "That's a crazy thing, isn't it?"
That's one word for it.
Shackled through five one-hit innings by Arkansas starter D.J. Baxendale, who was throwing his curveball and slider in his best impression of a major-leaguer, USC (36-12, 16-8 SEC) was matching it thanks to Forrest Koumas. Despite pitching for just the second time since March 31, Koumas was masterful, holding the Razorbacks (34-15, 12-12) to three hits and two walks in five innings while striking out four.
With the score still deadlocked at zero, though, USC squandered a sixth-inning leadoff double (from the light-hitting Chase Vergason, who broke up Baxendale's no-hitter) and Arkansas started solving Koumas. Jacob Mahan singled with one out and moved to third on Dominic Ficociello's single. Matt Reynolds walked to load the bags with one out and Tanner didn't hesitate, doing what he said he would do.
Closer Matt Price, no stranger to throwing long relief stints, had told Tanner that he felt good for five innings before the game. Getting an unexpected gift from Koumas, Price relieved and prepared to do what he has always done - shut 'em down.
Derrick Bleeker hit a fly ball to shallow right that looked to get a run home, but Adam Matthews, backing up on the ball, was prepared. He caught, stepped and threw in one motion - Mahan seemed to hesitate on the tag before running full-speed, the throw bounced in two steps up the line and Grayson Greiner received and tagged in one swoop.
"It's been a frustrating year for me, but you've got to keep grinding it out," Matthews said. "I just tried to keep the ball low."
The Hogs' rally squelched, USC went to work in the seventh. Christian Walker singled to start it but LB Dantzler struck out. Greiner was intentionally walked but pinch-hitter Michael Roth struck out.
With two outs and two on, Matthews stepped in. Struggling to hit all year, Matthews tried to keep his swing short and not go for the home-run cut. It paid off when he slapped a single through short to score Walker and finally dent the scoreboard.
Vergason followed with another RBI single and Tanner English punched a single over second base to plate two more. Baxendale, superhuman through six, was suddenly touchable and trailing 4-0 - with veteran fireman Price on the mound, the game was over.
Nobody told the Razorbacks that.
Price, for seemingly the first time in his career, didn't have it. Arkansas teed off on the All-American for five hits and three runs in the seventh, something that would have been worse if Matthews hadn't incredibly loaded up and thrown out Jake Wise at the plate, a play that got Wise ejected after he frustratedly slammed his helmet into the ground beside plate umpire Jeff Head.
Still, USC escaped with a 4-3 lead, and then began hammering Arkansas' relief crew. The Gamecocks batted around in the eighth, scoring six runs, keyed by a two-run single from Greiner, a two-run double from Roth and Vergason again with an RBI single. Ahead 10-3, Price again got the ball for the eighth and ninth and managed to hold on despite Arkansas scoring four more runs.
It was the most runs Price (4-3) has ever given up. He didn't walk anybody, but didn't strike out anybody and gave up seven runs on 10 hits. Tanner had Tyler Webb warming in the ninth, but stuck with Price - two diving catches from Evan Marzilli in center, combined with Matthews' heroics, helped Price get the job done, all the way up to Joey Pankake's game-ending leaping stab of Brian Anderson's line drive.
"I owe them a steak dinner," Price said of Matthews and Marzilli. "I was missing my spots with both my fastball and slider. Once I fell behind a couple of times, I had to get it over the plate and they put a good swing on it."
"I'm not sure if I've thrown two guys out at all," Matthews said. "Thank God I made some good throws."
"We spent Tuesday working on do-or-die plays from the outfield and sacrifice flies," Tanner said. "It came up today, and he has two plays at the plate."
Price got it done, USC earned its sixth straight series win and escaped from Arkansas with a one-game lead in the SEC East. The Gamecocks are right in position with six games to play, but they all said they were only going to concentrate on the next one - the same approach they've used ever since a 12-4 loss to Vanderbilt on March 31 dropped them to 2-6 in the league.
"I haven't spent much time looking at that whole deal," Tanner said. "I'm really proud of my guys for fighting out of that hole we had at the beginning of the year. It's a great feeling, and we'll try to keep the battle going."
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