South Carolina blew a three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning against The Citadel Tuesday night at Carolina Stadium. It took all of two pitches for the Gamecocks to get it back.
Joey Pankake drilled a 1-0 fastball off The Citadel right-hander David Rivera in the bottom of the ninth into the left-field bullpen for a walk-off home run and a 6-5 victory over the Bulldogs.
“Naturally, I was sitting fastball for the second pitch. I got one I could drive, and I put a good swing on it,” Pankake said.
The sophomore shortstop brought an abrupt end to the game with his sixth homer of the season. After struggling last week with four hits in 24 at-bats, he bounced back with a two-hit night, including the much-needed game-winner.
The No. 11 Gamecocks (27-7), who have won four straight after sweeping Tennessee over the weekend, travel to Florida for an SEC series that begins Thursday night.
USC coach Chad Holbrook wasn’t pleased that his bullpen let the 5-2 lead slip away in the ninth – capped by Evan Beal allowing a bases-loaded walk and Curt Britt surrendering a two-run single.
“All of a sudden he couldn’t find the strike zone. Evan Beal, as experienced as he is, should be able to finish that game out,” Holbrook said. “That was the disappointing part of the ninth inning for me.”
But he still liked his team’s chances with Pankake leading off.
“You always feel good when you’re home and you’re tied. You have the last crack at it. You’d rather be in our dugout than theirs when you’re tied in the ninth inning,” Holbrook said. “I still felt like we had a good opportunity to win. We had the heart of our lineup coming up. Joey got a good pitch to hit, and obviously he put a good swing on it.”
Pankake’s season has been one of highs and lows. He’s batting .295 with 25 RBIs, but he also has made a team-high 13 errors. A full-time starter as a freshman, he recognizes that he’s expected to be one of the team’s leaders as the No. 3 hitter who plays in the middle of the infield.
“I put a little more pressure on myself to have a better year. I think I’m a better player than what I showed last year,” Pankake said. “I’m trying to make improvements. I still have a lot of things I need to work on. I need to be more consistent in the field. I haven’t played that well this year. I need to drive in more runs. I’ve lot a lot of runners on base this year.”
The Gamecocks took a 5-2 lead in the seventh with a rally that looked like it would secure a win. Brison Celek delivered a two-out pinch-hit RBI single to break the 2-2 tie, and Grayson Greiner ripped a two-run double to give them some breathing room.
Reliever Vince Fiori threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings to allow USC to rally from an early 2-0 deficit.
“Vince Fiori gave us a chance to win the game, and he was probably the difference for us on the mound,” Holbrook said.
The Bulldogs (17-17), who had 11 hits, had other ideas with their late comeback.
“I’m always on edge with those guys,” Holbrook said. “The middle of their lineup is as good as any team we’ve played this year. I really believe that.”
Britt (2-0), despite allowing the game-tying single, got the final out in the ninth to get the win.
USC, which defeated the Bulldogs 9-5 in Charleston earlier in the season, tied the score at 2-2 in the fifth inning. Dante Rosenberg hit a homer – the first of his career – to lead off the inning against The Citadel starter Austin Livingston. Tanner English’s speed created the second run, starting with an infield hit. He came home on Chase Vergason’s sacrifice fly to shallow center.
The Bulldogs took a 2-0 lead in the first inning off USC starter Joel Seddon on Bo Thompson’s two-run double.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. They’re a good baseball team. It was pretty close the whole way through,” Pankake said.
USC didn’t escape the game completely unscathed, however. On a bunt play in the third inning that loaded the bases, second baseman Max Schrock was injured in a collision while covering first base. He had to leave the game. While X-rays showed there was no fracture to his neck, he did suffer a slight concussion. His status for the Florida series remains uncertain.