After watching the USC baseball team power its way to a pair of victories, Long Beach State returned the favor Sunday.
Led by first baseman Steve Tinoco’s three home runs, the Dirtbags avoided a series sweep and handed the Gamecocks their first loss, 10-7 at Carolina Stadium.
The outburst by Tinoco, who entered the game batting .158 with no homers, negated USC’s four home runs — one each by Whit Merrifield, Andrew Crisp, Justin Dalles and Nick Ebert — and helped snap a five-game skid by Long Beach State (3-7).
Tinoco, who finished with five of the Dirtbags’ 17 hits, admitted he had never hit three homers in one game. He didn’t mind that his teammates were kidding him that none of the three would have left Long Beach’s large park, which measures 408 feet to center. He was happy to go back to California with a win.
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“It’s huge for us,” said Tinoco, whose solo shots came in the second, third and ninth innings. “This team, we never quit. There’s a reason we wear this Dirtbags jersey.”
Long Beach coach Mike Weathers was relieved as well.
“We needed a win,” Weathers said. “It’s hard playing here. It’s hard playing coach (Ray) Tanner’s team. He’s the best in the SEC. We’re a young team, and we were playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores today. This is a tremendous environment to get them ready to play.”
Tanner was disappointed the No. 18 Gamecocks (8-1) lost, but he liked how his players bounced back from a 7-0, third-inning deficit.
“We played it to the end,” he said. “We made it interesting. We did show some resolve and battled back.”
Merrifield led the USC attack with three of its 12 hits, including an RBI single in the third and solo homer in the fifth.
“After the five-run inning, Coach got us together and said, ‘It’s only the second inning. Let’s chip away.’ We did, and we showed a lot of character,” said Merrifield, who has three homers on the season.
Crisp’s two-run shot in the sixth was immediately followed by Dalles’s blast, which cut the lead to 7-5.
“As a hitter, you try to drive the ball,” Merrifield said. “We happened to get a couple of balls up in the jet stream.”
With the wind pushing out to right-center all day, Weathers knew his lead wasn’t safe. Even after Rylan Sandoval’s two-run single gave the Dirtbags some breathing room, Ebert came back with a wind-blown shot in the seventh to cut it to 9-6.
“There’s no question this is an offensive park. It’s pretty obvious with the amount of balls flying out of here already,” Weathers said. “They’ll never be out of a game, especially with that lineup.”
The Gamecocks hit 10 homers in the three-game series, although Tanner isn’t certain the wind will factor into the rest of the season.
“I don’t think we know how the park is going to play,” Tanner said. “We’ll see how time goes on if it’s going to be that way. No question it was a hitter’s park this weekend.”
USC starter Blake Cooper (1-1) had not allowed an earned run entering the game, but he was knocked out of the box in the second inning after giving up six runs on eight hits. Reliever Parker Bangs stopped the bleeding with five strong innings of relief.
“We dug ourselves a hole,” Tanner said. “Parker gave us a stop and a chance to get back in it.”
But Long Beach State’s Andrew Gagnon (1-1) and a host of relievers held on, too, including closer Charlie Ruiz, who picked up his second save. Ruiz got a big out to end the eighth with the bases loaded.
“We got close enough that one swing would have tied it,” Tanner said.
Notes. Sophomore lefty Will Casey will get the start tonight in a rescheduled home game against Presbyterian at 7 p.m. USC plays host to Old Dominion and Wofford on Tuesday and Wednesday. Pitchers aren’t set, but Adam Westmoreland and Jay Brown could draw the midweek starts.
Tanner enjoyed the weekend matchup with Long Beach and believes the perennial Big West power will be an NCAA playoff contender. “I have great respect for that program,” he said. “They do it right. Their guys get after it and play extremely hard.”
Right-hander Jackie Bradley showcased his strong throwing arm in the fifth, when he caught a low liner and then gunned a perfect strike to first base to double off Long Beach’s Derek Legg.