South Carolina’s doubleheader sweep of Kentucky Saturday happened in large part due to the pair of senior left-handers who recorded the wins in the two games at Carolina Stadium.
Nolan Belcher got the job done as the starter in a 5-2 victory in the first game, and closer Tyler Webb finished things off in the 7-6 win in the 11-inning second game.
For good measure, designated hitter Brison Celek delivered the RBI singles that put the Gamecocks on top for good in both games, a seventh-inning knock in Game 1 and a walk-off hit in Game 2.
After getting swept last weekend at Florida, No. 18 USC (30-10, 10-7 SEC) could not afford another misstep against No. 17 Kentucky (24-14, 7-10 SEC).
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“It was 20 innings of very important baseball for us,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “You hate to put more on a day and a game than it actually is. In essence it was just two games, but our players understood the importance of the series this weekend.”
Belcher (6-3) allowed two runs on six hits and no walks while striking out six in his 7 2/3 innings. With an ERA of 1.70, he has walked just five batters in 74 innings over his 10 starts while emerging as the staff ace.
“That kid is what South Carolina baseball is all about,” Holbrook said.
Webb (2-1), who missed last weekend with a sore elbow and looked doubtful at one point for this series, threw three scoreless innings, allowing one hit while striking out four in a gutsy performance. Holbrook thought Webb, who has a 0.67 ERA and 11 saves on the season, looked as fresh as he has been all season.
“He was incredible. Tyler’s been an All-American this year. He’s been our guy,” Holbrook said.
The Gamecocks overcame a 2-0 deficit in sixth inning the first game and a 6-5 deficit in the eighth inning in the second game.
“We just had to battle and keep grinding,” Belcher said. “We’ve got to find some way to get the win, especially at home. We know what games are ahead of us. There are some tough teams so each game is important. We’ve got to win all of them we can.”
Webb, who cleared the mental hurdle of dealing with the sore elbow when he warmed up in the first game with no pain, was prepared to do whatever it took to match Kentucky closer Trevor Gott, who had not lost a game since his freshman season.
“I just tried to stay locked in because you don’t know how long this game is going to last. You could run out there for five more innings,” Webb said. “I was going to throw as hard and as well as I could for as long as I could. That’s all I can really do.”
Celek, who struck out four times previously in the second game, ended things with his 11th-inning RBI single to left that scored Joey Pankake, who led off the inning with a single and went to second on Kyle Martin’s single.
“It was a pretty frustrating day the second game striking out four times. Luckily I put the ball in play and it somehow found a hole,” Celek said. “It was a big accomplishment to come back, especially against their closer. He’s one of the best in the SEC, if not the country. It’s good for team morale to have a win like that.”
It ended Kentucky’s 64-game streak dating back to 2011 of not losing when having a lead after seven innings. Graham Saiko greeted Gott (4-1) with the RBI single that tied the game at 6-6 in the eighth before Webb took over.
“Their energy in the dugout was good, and I was proud of that. They didn’t hang their heads and kept battling and fighting and scratching,” Holbrook said. “Graham got the big two-out hit to tie it up and then we took a deep breath and felt like we could win the game because we had Tyler Webb getting ready to go in.”
Webb benefitted from a brilliant run-saving catch at the fence in right field by Connor Bright to escape a jam in the 11th inning.
The Wildcats had taken a 6-5 lead in the seventh inning on A.J. Reed’s three-run blast to right -- his 10th homer of the season -- off Adam Westmoreland, who was making his second appearance of the day after getting his third save of the season in the first game.
The Gamecocks also rallied back from a two-run homer by Zac Zellers in the first game to score five unanswered runs, which included solo homers by Pankake and LB Dantzler, who belted his team-leading 11th shot, and Celek’s big single.
Holbrook loved that comeback, too.
“Our guys got off the mat and responded the right way,” he said. “They played angry. They were mad. They did something about it, and that was good to see,”
Pankake had five hits on the day, while second baseman Max Schrock added four, including a solo homer in the second game.
Holbrook expects to start freshman left-hander Jack Wynkoop (4-2, 3.90 ERA) against Kentucky left-hander Corey Littrell (4-2, 3.16 ERA) on Sunday. He hopes not to use Westmoreland or Webb in relief after their Saturday workloads on what turned out to be a long day.
“Our kids played their tails off for 20 innings,” Holbrook said.