South Carolina closer Tyler Johnson has had an up-and-down season, but the junior was at his best on Tuesday when the Gamecocks needed him the most.
With USC’s season on the line, the hard-throwing righty threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings as the Gamecocks topped Vanderbilt 7-4 to advance to the double-elimination portion of the SEC Tournament.
Johnson struck out eight batters and allowed one hit while throwing 73 pitches.
The outing was the longest by Johnson this season and the second longest of his career. The only other time he has pitched more than 4 1/3 innings came last year in the NCAA Tournament when he pitched a complete game while allowing one run against UNC Wilmington.
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“I was able to hit inside, outside, up and down today,” Johnson said. “It reminded me of the regional last year. I wasn’t trying to throw my hardest. I was just trying to stay within myself. Clearly I need to do that a little bit more often.”
Johnson has struggled with his command at times this season but had no issues against the Commodores. He walked one batter while throwing his fastball and slider for a strike.
Vanderbilt’s lineup is led by a trio of stars in Will Toffey, Julian Infante and Jeren Kendall. The three combined to go 0-for-5 against Johnson, with four strikeouts. Toffey was the only one to make contact, popping up on the infield.
“He was just throwing the fastball by us,” Toffey said.
NO CROWE YET
USC starter Wil Crowe won’t pitch on Wednesday and will instead be held back until Thursday after throwing 122 pitches last weekend against Georgia.
With Crowe out, the Gamecocks are expected to rely on Cody Morris, John Parke and Colie Bowers on Wednesday against a Kentucky team that led the SEC in hitting in the regular season with a .323 average.
“Crowe’s thrown 120 pitches his last two starts, and he’s been moved up both of those starts. I don’t think it’s fair to him,” Holbrook said. “We’re just going to try to mix and match it and go with what we can. Parke’s going to have to pitch. Colie Bowers is going to have to pitch. Cody Morris is going to have to pitch, and maybe we can mix it up, two or three innings at a time here and keep them off balance.”
In addition to Johnson throwing 73 pitches, USC reliever Josh Reagan threw 49 pitches and Reed Scott, who has served as a starter and reliever this season, threw 82.
All three will likely be out on Wednesday, with Scott and Johnson likely needing a few days to recover.
“Tyler’s going to be out a while with 73, and Reed will probably be out a while with 82. But Reagan might return in a day or two,” Holbrook said. “We’re going to get them in the pool, get them in the Jacuzzi. There’s no tomorrow. They’re going to have to recover a little faster than we make them recover during the season and we’ll see what happens.”
South Carolina had its share of heartbreaking losses during the regular season, which made Tuesday’s dramatic win more special.
USC entered the SEC tourney having lost eight consecutive SEC series despite being in position to win several of them.
“You have to be around my players every single day to understand the investment they put in. When you see investment after investment after investment and work after work after work and they don’t get a return it can break your spirit,” Holbrook said. “I’m as proud as I can be of our players because their spirit wasn’t broken and hasn’t been broken all year long.”