HOOVER, Ala. | After being the first team eliminated from the SEC tournament, South Carolina has to hope to find some bats on the bus ride home to Columbia before the start of the NCAA tournament next week.
Auburn defeated USC 3-1 in 12 innings Thursday afternoon at Regions Park, which meant the Gamecocks managed to score one run in 21 innings at the tournament.
Coming on the heels of a 3-0 loss to Mississippi on Wednesday, No. 10 USC (43-15) likely will get the opportunity to return to the cozier confines of Carolina Stadium as an NCAA regional host, but consecutive defeats probably killed the Gamecocks’ chances of being a top-eight national seed and receiving an opportunity to host a Super Regional should they advance.
Wasting strong pitching performances from starter Blake Cooper and reliever Matt Price, the Gamecocks left the potential winning run in scoring position in the eighth, 10th and 11th innings, as Auburn closer Austin Hubbard (5-2) slammed the door with 4 2/3 scoreless innings.
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USC coach Ray Tanner lamented his team’s inability to deliver a clutch hit for the second consecutive day.
“We haven’t been a great offensive team the entire year, but we haven’t been this bad either,” he said.
In 21 innings covering two games, the Gamecocks managed 14 hits, 12 of them singles. Only a solo homer by catcher Brady Thomas off Auburn starter Grant Dayton in the seventh inning, which tied the game at 1, prevented USC from being the victim of back-to-back shutouts.
Whit Merrifield and Jackie Bradley, the top two hitters in the batting order, combined for five of USC’s seven hits Thursday, while the rest of the lineup combined to go 2-fot-32.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Merrifield said. “Obviously, you want to come through in those situations, but you’re not going to all the time. We had a couple of opportunities with runners in scoring position through the whole game, and we didn’t take advantage of it. Our pitchers did an unbelievable job keeping us in the game, and we couldn’t capitalize for them.”
Tanner plans to put his team through the paces starting today in Columbia with two-a-day practices and simulated game situations, with the focus being on runners in scoring position. He wants to reverse a trend that began with a pair of low-scoring losses to Florida in the final regular-season series that cost his team the conference championship.
“We had some clutch situations where we didn’t have quality at-bats,” Tanner said of Thursday’s marathon.
Thursday’s game still might be going on if not for a defensive miscue by second baseman Scott Wingo that led to Auburn’s winning rally in the 12th. Wingo lost the handle on a ground ball with a runner on first and one out as he tried to start a double play. Two batters and one walk later, Trent Mummey drilled a 3-2 fastball from Price (3-1) into center field for a two-run single, which made sure the No. 13 Tigers (40-18), the tournament’s second seed, would advance.
“We definitely wanted to stay and play a little longer and didn’t want to go two and done,” Mummey said. “We felt like we had a lot more to accomplish.”
Price had hoped he could pitch around the error.
“I was trying to get a ground ball on my next pitch and force a double play,” he said.
But Price, who was pitching in his fourth inning, could not do that. And his teammates couldn’t scratch out any runs to support him or Cooper, who lowered his ERA to 2.94 with 7 2/3 strong innings in which he allowed eight hits and no walks while striking out six.
The game was scoreless through three innings, although both teams threatened by putting runners into scoring position. The early innings also saw a pair of great running catches by the two right fielders, Auburn’s Justin Fradejas on a liner by Christian Walker, and USC’s Merrifield on a deep fly ball by Dan Gamache.
Auburn broke through with a solo homer by Creede Simpson to lead off the fourth. Simpson was hitting in place of Brian Fletcher, who was hit on the hand by a Cooper pitch in the first. Fletcher, the No. 3 hitter, who has 20 home runs and 70 RBIs, had to leave the game an inning later. Meanwhile, Simpson’s homer, down the left-field line, was only his fourth on the season.
Tanner, for his part, could find one ray of sunshine in the two losses.
“I’m ecstatic with what our pitching staff has done,” he said. “They have kept us in position for a long, long time.”