HOOVER, Ala. | The South Carolina baseball team won two of three games against Vanderbilt in Columbia six weeks ago to claim the regular-season series. At the time, the Commodores were ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Thursday night in a second-round SEC tournament game at Regions Park, Vanderbilt returned the favor against the top-ranked Gamecocks with a 7-2 victory. The Top 5 matchup featured two of the SEC’s three co-champions.
“We battled hard, but they were the better team tonight,” Tanner said. “They’ve got a great pitching staff, and they’ve got a great team over there.”
USC (45-13) falls into the losers’ bracket and must play Georgia (29-29) in an elimination game at approximately 7:30 p.m. Friday. Sophomore right-hander Colby Holmes (6-2) will start for the Gamecocks.
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Fourth-ranked Vanderbilt (46-9) gets a day off before playing in a Saturday winners’ bracket game at 10:30 a.m. against an opponent to be determined.
USC first baseman Christian Walker, who led the team with three hits, noticed Vanderbilt’s intensity, although he noted the Gamecocks played with it as well.
“When you’re playing a Top 3 team, you have that extra energy,” he said.
The Commodores put the game away with four runs in the ninth off four USC relievers on a pair of successful squeeze bunts by Mike Yastrzemski and Conrad Gregor and RBI singles by Jason Esposito and Riley Reynolds.
“You’ve just got to give them credit. They made plays and we didn’t,” USC senior third baseman Adrian Morales said.
Walker agreed the Gamecocks couldn’t hold it down in the end.
“It was just one of those days,” he said.
Ace right-hander Sonny Gray (10-3), who lost in the regular-season series to the Gamecocks, threw 6 1/3 solid innings, gave up just one earned run on five hits while striking out seven.
“It was a tough matching up Sonny Gray against a freshman for us,” Tanner said.
When Gray left in the seventh, reliever Corey Williams got into a bases-loaded jam before getting Scott Wingo to ground out to leave the Commodores with a 3-2 lead.
Vanderbilt closer Navery Moore got the final four outs to pick up his 10th save.
The game was delayed 16 minutes in the top of the third when some of the ballpark lights went out. The umpires sent the teams off the field while the problem was corrected. The delay occurred just after Gregor’s RBI single to left-center off USC starter Forrest Koumas (6-1) upped Vanderbilt’s lead to 3-1. The single followed a walk to Esposito, who stole second to get into scoring position.
South Carolina sliced the lead to 3-2 in the fourth inning on a two-out single by Morales to drive home Walker, who singled to lead off the inning and moved to second on a wild pitch. But that was it for USC’s offense, which mustered just seven hits.
“We didn’t hit like we wanted tonight,” Walker said.
Sloppy play cost the Gamecocks in the first inning. A walk, a double by Aaron Westlake, a hit batsman, an error by Wingo on a double-play ball, and a passed ball by catcher Brady Thomas gave the Commodores a 2-0 lead off Koumas, the freshman right-hander.
“We for sure had two (outs on the play). I rushed it,” Wingo said.
The bad inning also left USC with an uphill climb.
“It was a tough start for us,” Tanner said.
USC cut the lead in half in the second thanks to some sloppiness on Gray’s part. First he walked Thomas on four pitches. Thomas, whose sore foot has been bothering him since hurting it two weeks ago against Arkansas, was lifted by USC coach Ray Tanner in favor of DeSean Anderson, who scampered to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Gray. Jake Williams brought Anderson home with an RBI groundout to make the score 2-1.
An X-ray of Thomas’ sprained left ankle was negative, although he remains doubtful for Friday.