Jordan Montgomery’s throw on a bunt play in the second inning sailed over first baseman LB Dantzler’s head and with it sailed South Carolina’s chances to avoid elimination in the SEC baseball tournament.
The errant toss by the sophomore left-hander led to three unearned runs that proved critical in a 10-inning, 4-3 loss to No. 1 Vanderbilt in a losers’ bracket game Thursday afternoon at the Hoover Met.
The quick elimination dropped USC’s conference tournament record over the past five seasons to 4-12. Conrad Gregor’s bases-loaded RBI single past a drawn-in infield provided the walk-off run in the 10th inning. But the game likely never reaches extra innings if Montgomery throws that second-inning ball into Dantzler’s glove.
“We gave them three runs because we couldn’t field a bunt,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “Quite honestly, that was the difference in the game. If we field that bunt there, we probably win it in nine. We’ve got to make those plays. We executed them all but one. And that one cost us the game.”
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Montgomery, who allowed no earned runs on five hits and two walks and struck out eight over his 7 2/3 innings, understood it marred a fine outing.
“That’s a play I should make 10 out of 10 times,” he said.
Vanderbilt (49-8) advances to play Friday against the loser of Thursday night’s game between Mississippi State and Texas A&M. USC (39-18) returns to Columbia to await its NCAA tournament fate. The No. 17 Gamecocks hope to land a hosting role for the regionals, which will be announced late Sunday night.
“You never want to come here and go two-and-out, but we haven’t been successful here since 2004,” said Dantzler, who hit his team-leading 15th homer in the seventh inning to tie the game at 3-3. “We’re not going to let it get to us. I don’t think it’s going to affect how we play in the (NCAA) regional.”
Adam Westmoreland (7-3) took the loss for the second consecutive day after he gave up a hit to Tony Kemp to lead off the 10th inning. After another single off reliever Patrick Sullivan and an intentional walk to load the bases, Gregor pushed his single off Tyler Webb past second baseman Max Schrock, who collided with base runner Connor Harrell as the winning run scored.
Vanderbilt right-hander Carson Fulmer (2-0) got the win with 4 1/3 strong innings in relief of left-hander Kevin Ziomek.
“The pick-me-up was obviously Carson Fulmer. He pitched very well,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He pitched out of pressure situations the minute he came in.”
The Gamecocks collected 11 hits off Ziomek and Fulmer, but they also stranded 13 runners, seven of them from the second through fourth innings when it looked like they might have Ziomek, who beat USC 3-2 in Columbia on May 3, on the ropes.
“Ziomek is an amazing pitcher, as is Fulmer,” said USC catcher Grayson Greiner, who had one single and an RBI groundout in the third. “We took good swings on both of them, but we just couldn’t get that big hit with two outs and a man in scoring position. That was the difference in the game.”
Holbrook said his hitters must do a better job in key situations, especially with two strikes.
“A lot of that is toughness and grit and fighting and trying to use the other side of the field,” he said.
Vanderbilt opened the second inning with singles by Harrell and Gregor, setting the stage for the bunt play. When Montgomery’s throw went into foul territory down the right-field line, both runners scored. John Norwood followed with a one-out sacrifice fly to plate the third unearned run of the inning.
Montgomery, who didn’t pitch well in a May 4 loss to Vanderbilt, settled down as the Gamecocks fought back with a run in the sixth to cut the lead to 3-2. Tanner English lined a two-out double, went to third on a wild pitch, and after a walk to T.J. Costen, scored on Schrock’s RBI single up the middle.
“(Montgomery’s) a guy who commands the ball well,” Corbin said. “He’s a young kid, but he has pitched in Omaha and a lot of big games. I know he has the ability to change speeds and rhythms. He throws strikes. He doesn’t give in. He settled right back in. That’s the kind of pitcher he is. The real Montgomery was today.”
Vanderbilt, which went 3-0 against the Gamecocks this season, showed that it’s also for real.
“Obviously, Vanderbilt’s a team that can win the national championship,” Holbrook said. “They’re as good as anybody we’ve played all year.”