Graham Saiko’s return to the playing field could not have come at a better time for the South Carolina baseball team.
Reeling from a four-game losing streak in the SEC, the Gamecocks got a spark from their junior left-fielder, who made a diving catch in the top of the seventh inning and drove in the go-ahead run with a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the same inning.
That gave No. 17 USC a 3-2 victory against Texas A&M on Thursday night at Carolina Stadium. The Gamecocks (20-6, 3-4 SEC) had dropped one game to Missouri and three to Arkansas before rallying from a two-run deficit to beat the Aggies (18-9, 5-2 SEC) in the first game of the series.
Saiko, who missed seven games with an injury to his left wrist, hustled down the first-base line on a ground ball and kept the Aggies from turning an inning-ending double play, which allowed the third run to come home.
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“Graham’s a good baseball player. We needed him back in our lineup,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said.
Saiko, who was back in the leadoff spot, knew he needed to stay out of the double play. His fielder’s choice off Jason Freeman (1-1) followed singles by Connor Bright and Kyle Martin, a throwing error by center fielder Krey Bratsen, and an intentional walk to Tanner English.
“When you pound the ball on the ground like that, you know you’ve got to run hard,” he said. “It’s your job to get down there. I knew when I hit it, it was going to be a close play.”
His catch in the seventh kept a big rally from taking off because the following two hitters reached base. He was happy to be back despite going 0-for-4.
“Mentally, I was ready to play. It’s been a long week-and-a-half trying to get back on the field. Definitely I was a little bit rusty,” Saiko said. “I’m sure you could tell by my swings and my at-bats. They weren’t the best. Luckily we played really well as a team. We got a win, and that’s the most important thing.”
A pair of senior left-handers brought it home on the mound. Adam Westmoreland (2-0) struck out seven in 3 2/3 scoreless innings of relief to record the win, and closer Tyler Webb pitched two scoreless innings to collect his ninth save. Three USC pitchers combined for 17 strikeouts, one shy of the school record.
“The two lefties battled. They had outstanding stuff,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “Hopefully, we won’t see the middle guy (Westmoreland) again this weekend. He was really good.”
Westmoreland, who seldom pitched late last season, has come back in a big way. His ERA fell to 0.77 over 23 1/3 innings, and Holbrook likes how he has overcome an arm injury and family difficulties to contribute in his fifth season.
“He has had a tough go of it here, and he hasn’t pitched as well as he would have liked. But it looks like it’s all coming together for him right now,” Holbrook said. “He’s a darn good kid, a big old teddy bear, but he’s competing his rear end off out there. I’m happy for him. He makes our bullpen awfully formidable.”
USC evened the score at 2-2 in the sixth inning on LB Dantzler’s two-out, two-run double off hard-throwing lefty reliever A.J. Minter into the left-center gap to score Tanner English, who was hit by a pitch to start the inning. Joey Pankake singled in front of Dantzler off Texas A&M starter Grayson Long to break up a no-hitter, which ended Long’s night.
Dantzler was looking for a fastball on the 3-2 pitch since that was all he had seen from Minter. The senior captain was relieved to get the win.
“Anytime you win the first game of the series, that’s huge because we have (Nolan) Belcher going tomorrow and we have a lot of confidence in him,” Dantzler said. “He’s been throwing well so we’re pumped to get this win.”
The Aggies knocked USC starter Evan Beal out of the box in the fourth inning. After they scored one run in the third inning on Bratsen’s RBI single, they added another in the fourth on three hits, with Daniel Mengden getting the RBI on a groundout.
“South Carolina is used to playing under this kind of pressure on the biggest stage you can play. Just because we’ve got a 2-0 lead, they’re not panicked,” Childress said.
It was the second consecutive rough outing for Beal, who also was knocked out in the fourth inning by Arkansas last week. He allowed two runs on six hits in his 3 1/3 innings before being replaced by Westmoreland, who pitched out of a bases-loaded jam with two strikeouts to keep things from getting worse.
“It could have got away from us right there, and Adam struck out their best hitter (Mikey Reynolds). That was huge for us,” Holbrook said. “It was a very big win for us coming off last weekend. I hate to overemphasize because it’s one of 30 (SEC) games, but this one was probably a tad bit more important.”
Game two is at 7 p.m. Friday. Belcher (4-2, 1.45 ERA) will face Texas A&M senior right-hander Kyle Martin (2-3, 4.33).
Chad Holbrook postgame