South Carolina banged out 23 runs and 26 hits in its first two games against Duquesne, and the offense seemed to be clicking to open the season despite the absence of regulars Jackie Bradley and Nick Ebert.
Dukes starter Andrew Heck put a brief stop to that.
The Gamecocks’ offense was mostly dormant for six innings, but it was a different story once they got to the bullpen. USC’s defense turned in some key plays to help out six pitchers as the Gamecocks fought off a late rally to clinch a season-opening sweep of Duquesne with a 5-3 victory at Carolina Stadium on Sunday.
“Very relieved to be able to win this game today,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “We knew we would have our hands full with Heck on the mound. We had trouble scoring, (but) fortunately we were able to escape today.”
Heck limited the USC offense to a first-inning, RBI groundout by Jeffery Jones — who had 10 RBIs on the weekend — and allowed just five hits in six innings. The junior right-hander was the Dukes’ best starter a year ago with a 2-3 record and 3.78 ERA.
Leading 1-0, USC’s bats added some insurance once the Duquesne bullpen took over. Adam Matthews connected on a solo home run in the seventh before USC broke the game open with a three-run eighth inning.
Christian Walker pushed his RBI total to seven with an run-scoring single, Adrian Morales added a sacrifice fly and Matthews finished the scoring in the eighth with a fielder’s choice grounder.
“That was huge,” Tanner said. “When Matthews hit the home run, that gave us a breath of fresh air. Then we tacked on a few more, and we needed every one of them.”
USC pitched into jams several times but came up with a big pitch or defensive play to thwart the rally.
Freshman Tyler Webb pitched around trouble in three of his five innings. With two outs in the first, Webb allowed a single and double to put runners at second and third but struck out Derek Lefever to end the threat.
Webb would retire eight batters in a row, but an error and a walk put two runners on in the fourth. He then induced a grounder back to the mound for an inning-ending, 1-6-3 double play.
In the fifth, Webb allowed three straight singles to load the bases with one out before Steven Neff came on in relief. The sophomore from Lancaster got a ground ball back to the mound to start a 1-2-3 double play.
“We did a nice job out of the bullpen getting a couple of big double plays,” Tanner said.
Neff (1-0) earned his first career win after battling arm troubles for two years.
The shutout stayed intact until the ninth when projected closer John Taylor has a rough outing. The junior college transfer allowed three runs on a solo home run by Mark Tracey, an RBI double by Chris Happ and an RBI single by Derrick Zeroski.
With the tying run at the plate, Taylor forced the final out on a deep fly ball that Bradley hauled in at the warning track in center. Bradley came on in the ninth as a defensive replacement since he still can’t swing a bat because of a broken hand.
“He (Taylor) was up for a long time, but I’m not making excuses for him,” Tanner said. “He has to do better than that. Overall, it was a great effort out of the bullpen, but he has to be sharper than that. But he was the last guy down there for a reason. He had out performed all the other guys in front of him. But today, he wasn’t at the top of the list.”
The Gamecocks are off this week before going on the road to face East Carolina, the team that eliminated USC in last year’s NCAA regional.