A whole lot of numbers went up on the Carolina Stadium scoreboard Sunday afternoon, but there was only one that truly concerned the USC baseball team.
And there was nothing lucky about it as the seventh-ranked Gamecocks won their seventh consecutive SEC series with a 20-15 slugfest victory against Alabama. By taking two of three from the Crimson Tide, USC (34-9, 16-5) maintained its top spot in the conference.
“That’s a heck of an accomplishment for our players. This league is so difficult,” said USC assistant coach Chad Holbrook, filling in at the postgame media session for Ray Tanner, who had a bout of vertigo. “For us not to have lost (a series) to any team is a credit to our players.”
The Gamecocks scored a season-high in runs on a season-high and Carolina Stadium-record 25 hits off eight Alabama pitchers, including home runs by Jackie Bradley, Brady Thomas, Kyle Enders and Evan Marzilli. Enders led the attack with a career-high five hits and five RBIs, while Adrian Morales added four hits and Thomas tallied four RBIs on three hits.
Alabama (28-17, 9-12) countered with 16 hits, including five home runs, off six USC pitchers, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the Gamecocks, who scored six runs in the fourth and five in the fifth to overcome an 8-4 deficit.
“This team has been great all season long. Even when we get down, we find a way to win,” said Enders, who caught all nine innings on a hot day. “We knew the ball was flying out. We just had to keep plugging away.”
The Gamecocks, who host Winthrop on Wednesday and travel to Kentucky next weekend, scored in every inning but the sixth. Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard called it a total breakdown by his bullpen.
“We ran everybody out there we had. They had a very good day offensively,” Gaspard said. “It’s just one of those days. With the way the wind was blowing, any ball had a chance to get out.”
The Tide also took advantage, but USC reliever Matt Price’s scoreless innings in the fifth and sixth made the difference for the Gamecocks.
“It was a tough day to pitch. Matt Price gave us a chance,” Holbrook said.
It helped the USC pitchers that the hitters kept plugging away, which Thomas credited to the team’s mental toughness.
“It was pretty interesting. I’ve never been in a game like that before,” said Thomas, whose walk-off homer won Friday night’s game and whose three-run pinch-hit blast in the fourth Sunday tied the game at 8-all.
Holbrook gave Tanner credit for that decision. Tanner almost didn’t make it to the game after seeing a doctor Sunday morning.
USC outfielder Whit Merrifield, who had three hits Sunday, admitted he never expected the Gamecocks to win seven straight series, but he’s not surprised.
“It’s a tough feat to accomplish, but we’re a good team,” Merrifield said. “We’ve put it together so far, hitting and pitching.”
The pitchers have posted five shutouts in SEC play, but the hitters took center stage Sunday. Three pitches into the game, the Gamecocks took a 2-0 lead off Alabama starter Tucker Hawley, a freshman right-hander from South Aiken. Merrifield led off with a single on the first pitch, and two pitches later, Jackie Bradley lifted a long fly ball that carried out over the left-center field fence for a two-run homer.
Hawley, whose father Billy was a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds out of Brookland-Cayce in 1982, didn’t make it out of the second inning.
Alabama knocked out USC starter Jay Brown in the third inning. He gave up four hits and two walks in his short stint, including a solo home run to Jake Smith in the second.
As the teams traded runs, Holbrook liked how his team responded to adversity in the early innings, especially after Saturday’s tough 6-4 loss.
“They were ready to go from the first pitch,” Holbrook said. “They didn’t let an 8-4 deficit get them down in any way.”