The South Carolina baseball team entered Sunday’s game against Mississippi looking for a sweep of the three-game series, something the Rebels desperately wanted to avoid.
Emotions ran high on both sides before Ole Miss held on to prevail 5-4 at Carolina Stadium.
Although the 10th-ranked Gamecocks fell to 28-8 overall and 11-4 in the conference, they remained in first place in the SEC East. The No. 14 Rebels improved to 24-13 and 8-7.
The tone was set early when home-plate umpire Ray Gregson ejected USC pitching coach Mark Calvi in the third inning for arguing balls and strikes. USC coach Ray Tanner, who was on the field with Gregson at the time, wasn’t surprised his coach got the heave-ho.
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“He (Calvi) barked, and he (Gregson) let him bark, and then he (Calvi) barked again. The second time they’ll (eject) you sometimes. That’s the way it works,” Tanner said.
Things heated up again in the seventh inning when Tanner jawed with Ole Miss third baseman Zach Miller. Tanner was coming onto the field to check on Whit Merrifield, who had been momentarily dazed on a slide into third base. Tanner believed Miller didn’t get out of Merrifield’s way when it was obvious there was not going to be a play — and he let Miller know it. That brought Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco out of the dugout.
“There was a collision over there, and the baseball didn’t go over there,” Tanner said. “I think he (Miller) was blocking the base a little bit without the baseball.”
Merrifield remained in the game but couldn’t score to tie the game when the Rebels recorded outs on hard-hit balls by Christian Walker and Parker Bangs.
“We needed this game,” Bianco said. “We made some key pitches, and we got some good fortune with some balls hit hard right at people. But we were due for this one.”
In the eighth, when the crowd began to get on Mississippi’s Matt Smith after a groundout, he waved his arms to the fans and the USC dugout as he ran back to the dugout to louder booing.
“That wasn’t too cool. He was fired up. We were fired up,” Merrifield said. “I was hoping that would fire us up. We hit some balls hard, but it didn’t go our way.”
After the game, both coaches downplayed the intensity shown by their teams.
“It’s a Sunday game, two teams competing. A lot of things happen. It’s part of baseball,” Tanner said. “That goes on all the time. Sometimes you guys don’t get to see it or even hear it. There are a lot of competitive situations. Today it was a little bit more obvious.”
Bianco, who called Tanner a good friend, said it was simply a matter of two teams going at it as hard as they could.
“They want to win, and they don’t want to be satisfied with two (wins), and you saw that today with their emotions. It’s part of it,” Bianco said.
In the end, the game came down to a pair of Ole Miss relievers holding the Gamecocks scoreless over the final four innings. Matt Tracy pitched 3ð scoreless innings of one-hit ball to earn the win, while Brett Huber got the final three outs to record his fourth save.
“The difference for me in the game ended up being the job Tracy did for them out of the bullpen. He was stellar,” Tanner said.
Ole Miss grabbed a 5-4 lead in the seventh on a leadoff homer by David Phillips off USC reliever John Taylor (2-2).
The Gamecocks took a 2-0 lead on solo homers by Scott Wingo in the third, his team-leading eighth of the season, and Adam Matthews in the fourth. Wingo’s home run came after Ole Miss starter David Goforth struck out seven of USC’s first eight hitters.
The Rebels answered in the fifth with four runs to knock USC starter Jay Brown out of the game, a rally that was capped by Smith two-run homer. USC tied the game at 4 in its half of the inning on Jeffery Jones’ two-run double.
But that’s where the Gamecocks’ offense stalled during a hard-fought game.