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GREENVILLE, N.C. — Ray Tanner warned before the start of the Greenville Regional this week that his Gamecocks were the worst-hitting team in the four-team field.
After watching his players pound out 17 hits, including three homers, in a first-round 11-3 victory against George Mason on Friday at Clark-LeClair Stadium, he was ready to amend that statement.
And to be honest, he was being polite to his potential opponents, given that the Gamecocks have spent most of the season crushing the baseball.
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With the win, second-seeded USC (39-21) advances to play the winner between top-seeded East Carolina and Binghamton today at 6 p.m. George Mason (42-13) will play the loser at 2 p.m.
Parker Bangs, Jackie Bradley and Bobby Haney all had three hits apiece, with Bangs and Bradley each hitting two-run homers to right. Whit Merrifield extended his hitting streak to 11 games with a pair of hits, and Nick Ebert added his team-leading 23rd homer.
After it was over, Tanner acknowledged his team can swing the bats pretty well. The Gamecocks started slow off George Mason starter Mike Modica (11-2), but they took the lead with four runs in the fourth and kept building the next three innings. All nine batters tallied a hit for USC.
“I was really proud of our guys for tacking on some runs in the middle innings,” Tanner said. “We had some two-out runs. Those things end up being big for you during the course of the weekend.”
Ace right-hander Sam Dyson (9-4) pitched seven solid innings to keep the Patriots in check. He allowed one run in the first and two in the seventh but cruised in between. He started shaky when leadoff hitter Spencer Wiggins drilled a long fly to right, but Bradley made a running, leaping catch to take away a home run. George Mason scored on Justin Boar’s double before Dyson worked out of a bases-loaded jam with a double play.
“I thought the first inning was huge,” Tanner said. “They had a run across and the bases loaded. We got a room-service double-play ball to get out of the inning. I’m sitting there thinking four or five runs for Modica; he’s going to be in good shape.”
USC’s first big inning got going after Patriots shortstop Brent Weiss made two errors on one play — allowing Bradley to tie the game. Bangs followed with a two-run shot, and the Gamecocks were off and running.
“It gave us a spark,” said Merrifield, who had three RBIs. “Modica located his pitches very well and threw a lot of off-speed stuff. But after seeing a guy through the lineup a couple of times, we got more focused. We were able to hit the ball hard and push a few runs across.”
Bradley hit his two-run homer in the sixth to up the lead to 8-1, and Ebert added his solo shot in the seventh. By the time Chris Henderson hit a two-run double off Dyson in the seventh, it was too little, too late for the Patriots, who entered the game with a .322 batting average and 81 homers.
Even a rain and lightning delay that lasted one hour and 18 minutes in the seventh didn’t slow down the Gamecocks, as Andrew Crisp ripped a two-run double on the first pitch back.
The win got the Gamecocks off on the right foot — USC has won 17 straight regional openers — but Merrifield said they don’t look much further ahead than the next game.
“We talked about five one-game win streaks, and we’ve won one,” he said.
George Mason coach Bill Brown said the loss was a big let down for the Patriots, the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season champs.
“Disappointed is the understatement of the day,” Brown said. “I felt like we were going to come in and be competitive, and we weren’t today. We really didn’t play like a team that’s competing to win this regional. Ideally we’ll make that adjustment this evening and get back on track a little bit.”
USC’s hitters, who entered with a .305 average, were right on track, passing 100 homers on the season for the 10th time in school history.
“It was big for us to come up with some big hits,” Tanner said.