Chad Holbrook came away from South Carolina’s 6-4 victory against Texas A&M on Friday night at Carolina Stadium with mixed emotions.
A week after being swept at home by Arkansas, he was happy to see his team bounce back and earn the series win with a chance to earn a sweep in the finale Saturday.
He also was pleased with the five-run first inning that staked the Gamecocks to an early lead with the reliable Nolan Belcher on the mound.
But a couple of things happened early that caused the first-year head coach a lot of anguish.
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The Gamecocks ran themselves out of a potential bigger first inning when Grayson Greiner ran through a stop sign by third base coach Sammy Esposito. But his biggest sin on the play was failing to slide at the plate when it was obvious it was going to be a bang-bang play. That was the final out of the USC five-run outburst in the first inning.
“Obviously thrilled to win a conference series at home against a top-15 ranked Texas A&M team that made us fight and scratch and claw for this one,” Holbrook said. “As happy as I am to win the game, I’m very disappointed in some of the things that we did. We have to play better as a group than we did the last 8 2/3 innings. I can’t get out of my head that we didn’t slide at home plate. We would have had Carolina Stadium rocking right there. It was a monumental failure on all accounts.”
Holbrook mentioned that play several times in his postgame news conference but that couldn’t wash away the fact South Carolina (21-6, 4-4) got another spectacular effort from Belcher and had its most productive night at the plate in eight SEC games this season.
The Gamecocks had not scored more than four runs in its first seven SEC games but surpassed that total in the big first inning against Texas A&M starter Kyle Martin.
The Aggies right-hander opened the game with walks to Graham Saiko and Max Schrock before Martin recorded his only out with a fielder’s choice grounder by Joey Pankake. LB Dantzler and Connor Bright followed with RBI singles and Chase Vergason, who tied his career-high with three hits, followed with a single to load the bases. Martin then walked Grayson Greiner on five pitches to end his night.
Matt Kent got a soft liner to first from USC designated hitter Kyle Martin before Tanner English roped a two-run double down the right field line. Greiner was thrown out on the play to end the threat, but the Gamecocks held a 5-0 lead.
“If you would have told me before the game we would score five in the first, I would be happy,” Holbrook said. “We scored five in the first, and I was as mad as I’ve ever been. I never want one of my teams to not slide at home plate. If it happens again this year, I will donate a month of my salary to Children’s Hospital or some charity. It about cost us the game.”
South Carolina finished with 11 hits, also a season-high in SEC play. They came into the game with a .212 batting average in conference play through seven games.
“It’s always nice to see when you’re struggling,” Vergason said of the early runs. “We needed that. We strung together some hits, which was hard to come by earlier in the season.”
The Gamecocks added a single run in the fourth inning on a RBI single by Pankake, who extended his on-base streak to 19 games.
Belcher again was outstanding in improving to 5-2 on the season. He pitched 8 1/3 innings and allowed four runs — two earned — in the 106-pitch effort. He scattered seven hits with nine strikeouts and no walks. On the season, the left-hander has 51 strikeouts with a single walk.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done it,” Belcher said of his strikeout-to-walk ratio. “I don’t even think about it. I see you guys posting stuff on Twitter and writing articles about it but I just try to make good pitches. If I walk a guy, I walk a guy.”
Holbrook was not surprised by Belcher’s outing.
“Nolan Belcher was terrific once again,” Holbrook said. “Absolutely incredible walk-to-strike out ratio. He leads the country and I don’t think second place is even in the same stratosphere.”
The Aggies (18-10, 5-3) got on the board with a run in the fourth inning when the Gamecocks’ defense had a shaky inning. Mikey Reynolds led off with a single to left and he advanced to second when Graham Saiko bobbled the ball. Blake Allemand reached on a error by Pankake at short to put runners at the corners with one out.
Belcher had a chance to get of the frame without allowing any damage, but Vergason bobbled a sure double play ball at second and USC got one out.
Texas A&M added a two-run double by Logan Taylor in the seventh inning and had the tying run on first in the ninth. Belcher left after getting one out with a base runner on after the third USC error of the game. Webb allowed an RBI single to Reynolds in the ninth but struck out Krey Bratsen to earn his SEC-leading 10th save.
South Carolina will go for the sweep Saturday at 1:30 pm. Jack Wynkoop will pitch for the Gamecocks against the Aggies’ Daniel Mengden.