Tennessee did something Friday night that not many teams have done the past two seasons. The Volunteers found a way to beat South Carolina with Michael Roth and Matt Price on the mound.
With runs in the eighth and ninth innings, the Volunteers rallied for a 5-4 victory at Carolina Stadium in the opening game of the three-game series. The win for Tennessee (20-10, 6-4 SEC) snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Gamecocks (21-9, 3-7) that dated to 2009.
“We had our two guys out there, and they (the Volunteers) were able to score one more run than we did,” said USC coach Ray Tanner, whose team fell to 6-6 in one-run games.
First-year Tennessee coach Dave Serrano, who came from Cal State-Fullerton, knew his team had accomplished something special against USC’s pair of All-America pitchers.
“They are two guys that I have a lot of respect for, that I have watched on TV the last few years, and I am very proud of our guys for being able to overcome those two guys and overcome ourselves,” Serrano said. “I am very proud of how we overcame Roth and Price, two good quality pitchers in college baseball.”
The Volunteers scored the winning run in the ninth when Price (3-3) threw the ball away while trying to double off a runner at third base after catching Zach Luther’s popped-up bunt. Zach Osborne, who singled to start the rally and moved to third on a single by Will Maddox, scored on Price’s errant throw.
“It kind of got away from me,” Price said of the throw that could have ended the inning but sailed out of the reach of shortstop Joey Pankake.
Tanner, however, refused to assign blame to Price.
“He battled for us,” Tanner said. “I’m not disappointed in Matt Price. It’s baseball.”
Tennessee’s bullpen was able to finish things. Drew Steckenrider (3-2) got the win with 21/3 innings of scoreless relief, while Nick Blount pitched a perfect ninth inning for his seventh save in seven games and eighth overall.
“I thought the difference in the game was what Steckenrider did out of the bullpen. He just stuffed us,” Tanner said.
Steckenrider, who struck out six hitters as a pitcher, also hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning, his team-high fifth home run, off Roth — the first one given up all season by USC’s senior left-hander. He admitted the Volunteers were pleased to end their three-season skid to the two-time defending national champions.
“We’ve just got to keep this going forward,” Steckenrider said. “We’re on a roll right now.”
The teams play the second game of the series, which will be televised on ESPNU, at 8 tonight. USC left-hander Jordan Montgomery will face Tennessee left-hander T.J. Thornton.
The Volunteers tied the game at 4 in the eighth against Price, who gave up two hits and a walk in the inning, with the run scoring on an RBI groundout by Chris Fritts. Price understands winning the series gets more difficult after losing the opener.
“It’s going to be tough, but we’ve got a great group of guys who are going to fight and battle every inning,” Price said. “It is very frustrating, but that’s the way baseball happens sometimes.”
The see-saw game featured a string of lead changes. The Gamecocks took the lead at 4-3 in their half of the sixth on Christian Walker’s two-out, two-run, bases-loaded single. The inning could have been bigger, but the Gamecocks made a pair of outs on base-running gaffes. They were able, however, to knock Tennessee starter Zack Godley, a junior right-hander from Bamberg, out of the box after he pitched effectively for five innings.
Walker also realizes the Gamecocks must play much better if they’re going to push their way into the SEC East race.
“It’s pretty disappointing. That’s not us. That’s not the way we play,” Walker said. “You’re going to have days like that, but you’ve got to work through it.”
South Carolina took a 2-1 lead in the fifth with help from the Tennessee defense. Evan Marzilli started with a leadoff single — which upped his consecutive-game streak of reaching base to 30 — and moved to third on a sacrifice and a wild pitch. He scored when Tennessee first baseman Davis Morgan muffed a throw on Walker’s grounder to third. Walker then scored on LB Dantzler’s bloop double to center.
The Volunteers scored first off Roth in the third on a pair of doubles into the left-center gap, the first one by Ethan Bennett and the second one by Will Maddox.
But the Gamecocks left nine runners on base and struck out 13 times, numbers that make a difference in one-run games.
“It’s excessive. We have to do a better job than that for sure,” Tanner said. “You don’t deserve to win when you strike out 13 times.”
He also knows winning the series after a tough Friday loss — which also included a hamstring injury to freshman left-fielder Tanner English — is that much harder to accomplish.
“(Friday is) the big game, the momentum game, and we didn’t get it done,” he said.