So much for a peaceful Mother’s Day baseball game between South Carolina and Georgia.
The No. 15 Gamecocks swept the three-game series with an 8-3 victory Sunday afternoon at Carolina Stadium. But unlike the previous two wins, this one included a lot of strong language that wouldn’t be approved by many mothers.
A picture-perfect day turned ugly at the end of the fourth inning after USC’s Joey Pankake was thrown out attempting to steal third base. As third-base coach Sammy Esposito questioned the call and the Georgia players ran off the field toward the third-base dugout, heated words were exchanged.
The verbal altercation broke out after USC scored three runs in the inning to up its lead to 6-2 — a rally that included RBI singles by Chase Vergason and Pankake. Esposito and Pankake engaged what appeared to be much of Georgia’s team, especially second baseman Nelson Ward, in response to the inning-ending play.
“It did kind of escalate,” Pankake said. “I don’t know exactly what was said. There were a lot of people yelling. Fans were in it. There was a lot going on. I couldn’t exactly pick out what was said.”
After the Gamecocks took the field, the back-and-forth yelling continued on the first-base side of the field. That led to an ejection for Esposito, who was not made available for a postgame interview, as well as one for Georgia first-base coach Jason Jacobs and USC strength and conditioning coach Billy Anderson.
But the umpiring crew and head coaches Chad Holbrook and David Perno quickly got things back under control. There were no further incidents, although USC reliever Adam Westmoreland threw a high-and-tight pitch to Ward in the eighth inning.
“It’s just emotions. It wasn’t that big of a deal,” Perno said. “I know it looked worse than it was. I don’t think anybody’s to blame. We’re playing hard, they’re playing hard, and I think something was said that someone thought was to one of our players and in reality it was probably to the umpire.”
Holbrook responded similarly in the incident’s aftermath.
“It’s an emotional game. They’re trying real hard to win. We’re trying real hard,” Holbrook said. “All I understood it to be was a little bit of a conversation between a couple of their players and Joey. Then boys became boys, and that’s baseball. No big deal. It’s really not. They’ve got classy kids on their team. Our kids are good kids.”
He added after the press conference that the ejected personnel could face further disciplinary measures from the SEC office.
“I can’t speak for Coach Espo. He’s as fiery competitor as we’ve got. That’s what I love about him,” Holbrook said. “Espo feels terrible about it. But he’s a fiery guy and so is Joey. Sometimes when one thing is said here or there, we chirp back. Maybe we shouldn’t chirp back, but we did.”
It helped the Gamecocks that starter Jack Wynkoop (7-2) didn’t allow the Bulldogs to gain any sort of emotional lift after the incident. The freshman left-hander retired the side in order in the fifth on two strikeouts and a groundout.
“He was the most composed guy in the ballpark, to be honest with you,” Holbrook said. “Our players are emotional, their players are emotional, the fans are into it, and the coolest cucumber in the stadium was Jack. Kudos to him for being a freshman and responding that way. That showed me a lot about him.”
South Carolina improved to 37-14 overall and 16-10 in the SEC, while the Bulldogs fell to 18-31 overall and 5-19. It was USC’s fourth sweep of a conference opponent this season and gave the Gamecocks a 2½-game lead over Mississippi State and Ole Miss for fourth place overall and a first-round bye in the conference tournament with three SEC games left to play next weekend in Starkville.
“Our kids played really good baseball for three games. We played about as good as we could play,” Holbrook said. “We situational hit, we played defense, we were aggressive on the bases, we got two-out hits, and we were fortunate.”
Georgia jumped to a 2-0 lead in the third inning when Hunter Cole laced a two-out, two-run double into the left-field corner. The Gamecocks responded in their half with three runs off Georgia left-hander Jared Walsh (2-4) on Grayson Greiner’s RBI infield single and Brison Celek’s two-run single, both of which came with two outs.
Pankake led the 12-hit attack with three hits. Greiner and Tanner English each added a pair, with English lacing an RBI double in the eighth inning. But the performances were overshadowed by the extracurricular activities.
“I’ve got tons of respect for Chad and the South Carolina program,” Perno said. “They’re a class act and a class program. If it was our fault, I apologize. He wants his guys to play hard and compete and back each other up, and that’s all we were doing.”
Holbrook said the same about Perno.
“He’s a classy guy, and he runs a classy program. And I think we do, too,” Holbrook said. “It was just an instance in the game that happened. I apologized to Dave, and he apologized to me, and that’s the end of the deal.”