The South Carolina baseball team didn’t sweep its season-opening series for the first time in the five-year history of Carolina Stadium, but new coach Chad Holbrook wasn’t complaining after winning two of three one-run games against Liberty.
The Flames won the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader 3-2 in seven innings, and it took a miraculous comeback by the Gamecocks in the day’s first game to keep from losing the series. Down 7-0 after seven innings, USC rallied for three runs in the eighth inning and five more in the ninth to pull out an 8-7 victory in the first game.
“I feel very fortunate to have won two games this weekend,” Holbrook said. “Like I told my team after the second game (of the series) — if you go pitch-by-pitch and play-by-play and at-bat by at-bat — Liberty outplayed us. They have a good team. That’s an NCAA tournament team we played. It’ll be a good RPI weekend for us after the season is complete.”
Holbrook noted that his team seemed to relax after falling behind 7-0 in the first game of the day. And once the No. 7 Gamecocks (2-1) did that, they staged a rally that was reminiscent of the past three seasons. After managing one hit in their first seven innings, the Gamecocks responded with two big innings, scoring their final five runs on five walks and two hits.
“When we were pressing or just trying too hard, we didn’t do so well. When it got to 7-0, we got lost in the game,” Holbrook said. “It was just, ‘Hey, let’s try to get back in this thing,’ and we forgot about ourselves. That was encouraging to see. We didn’t have any quit in us, and we fought back. We had some really good at-bats.”
With two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth, USC pinch-hitter Kyle Martin lined a single off Liberty pitcher Josh Richardson to score the tying run. When catcher Trey Wimmer threw the ball away down the first-base line, the winning run scored as the Gamecocks poured out of the first-base dugout in celebration.
“I basically tried to put the ball in play. You want to get the runners in, maybe look for a hole somewhere,” Martin said.
That made a winner of senior left-hander Adam Westmoreland, who pitched the final 21/3 innings.
“It shows the kind of team we are, and that we’re not just going to give up no matter what the score is,” Westmoreland said. “Our team chemistry is strong enough, even with the younger guys, that we’re going to battle and compete to the last out.”
Holbrook was pleased Westmoreland retired the side in order the last two innings — after the Flames scored six runs in the seventh to take a 7-0 lead — to give USC a chance to rally.
“Adam has been through a lot and it was good to see him contribute to a big win for us,” Holbrook said.
The Gamecocks, however, couldn’t pull off the sweep. Senior left-hander Nolan Belcher threw well in his start, striking out nine batters in 5 2/3 innings, but he gave up a solo homer to Justin Sizemore and an RBI triple to Dalton Britt in the fourth inning that proved to be the difference.
“It was good to get back out there, even though the weather was a little chilly,” Belcher said. “I felt I had had pretty good command today. Even the pitches they hit hard, I felt like they were pretty good pitches.”
But his teammates mustered six hits, with the runs scoring on sacrifice flies by Joey Pankake and Erik Payne. A sixth-inning rally was short-circuited when a possible RBI double by LB Dantzler down the right-field line was ruled foul, a call that brought a protesting Holbrook out of the dugout.
Emotion ran the other way in the first inning, when Liberty coach Jim Toman, the former USC assistant, was tossed for arguing a call on an appeal of a tag-up play that went against his team.
In the end, Liberty starter Trey Lambert, who got the win, and reliever Ashton Perritt, who picked up the save, kept the Gamecocks from getting their fifth-straight season-opening sweep in Carolina Stadium.
“We didn’t have the energy I’d like to see us have in Game 2. But we played a good team,” Holbrook said. “It was there for us to win, and we could have competed a little harder.”