Max Schrock did not expect to be playing the role of Kirk Gibson in the first game of South Carolina’s Saturday doubleheader against Mississippi.
But when the sophomore stepped onto the stage to pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth inning and the top-ranked Gamecocks trailing by a pair of runs, he delivered a bravura performance that sent the Carolina Stadium crowd into a frenzied state and helped propel USC to a doubleheader sweep for a series victory.
Schrock, whose sprained ankle kept him out of the starting lineup, gingerly walked to the plate and blasted a long two-run homer off Ole Miss reliever Josh Laxer over the right-field fence to tie the game in a dramatic three-run rally.
As he slowly jogged on his sore left ankle and pumped his fist, he conjured images of Gibson, the injured hero who came off the bench to hit a game-winning homer for the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
“It was kind of hard for that idea not to go through my head,” Schrock said. “Growing up as a baseball player, you’ve seen that video hundreds and hundreds of times. So when I was rounding second base, it was hard to not have that image in my mind.”
Schrock’s homer didn’t win the game, but it enabled pinch-hitter Brison Celek to lace an RBI single in the 10th inning for a miraculous 5-4 comeback win after trailing by four runs heading into the sixth inning.
And the momentum from Schrock’s shot carried over to a 3-1 win in the nightcap.
“It definitely propelled us,” said center fielder Tanner English, whose bunt RBI single in the fifth inning scored the go-ahead run in the second game. “That was crazy. You don’t see that a lot. Max is a really special hitter. I know he’s hurting and I know he wants to be on that field, but he definitely helped us out this weekend.”
The No. 1 Gamecocks improved to 18-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC, while the No. 21 Rebels dropped to 17-4 overall and 1-2 in the SEC.
Schrock, who missed last weekend’s series against Brown and the midweek game against Furman due to the injured ankle, came back in Friday night’s loss against Ole Miss to collect four hits, including a homer.
But he aggravated the ankle, which led him to him watching his teammates take batting practice while wearing a walking boot. He kept getting treatment during the game, however, just in case he was called upon to hit. He responded by hammering a 1-2 slider.
“He called my name, and I went up there and didn’t feel very loose,” Schrock said. “But I saw a pitch up and put a good swing on it.”
USC coach Chad Holbrook called inserting Schrock at that moment a no-brainer due to his ability to get balls up in the air, especially since a right-hander was on the mound and the wind was pushing out. Connor Bright delivered his own two-out, two-strike RBI single to cut the lead to 4-2 before Schrock came through with a moment that left Holbrook at a loss for words.
“It certainly was a big bolt of energy for us. There’s no doubt,” Holbrook said. “Our dugout was a little quiet in the seventh and eighth, but you’ve got to have somebody step up and create a little momentum. I’m usually not very speechless, but I don’t know how to describe the events. I really don’t.”
Schrock, who’s batting .354 with four homers and 10 RBIs, wasn’t USC’s only hero in the first game. Closer Joel Seddon (1-0) picked up the win with an inning of scoreless relief, including a pair of strikeouts with runners on the corners in the 10th.
Freshman right-hander Reed Scott tossed six scoreless innings to give the Gamecocks a chance to pull off a comeback.
“When I came in, I just wanted to keep it close because I knew our hitters were going to start scoring some runs,” Scott said. “I felt good. I just tried to throw strikes. I knew they were an aggressive team so I wanted to keep them off-balance and get outs.”
Left-fielder Elliott Caldwell threw out a pair of Rebels at the plate. And, of course, Celek made the Gamecocks a winner.
In the second game, Wil Crowe, Cody Mincey and Seddon did the job on the mound. Crowe (4-0) got the win with a solid effort, Mincey held down the fort for three innings, and Seddon got the last two outs for his sixth save. The USC bullpen has now thrown 61 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
“We don’t really talk about it. The main thing is just try to get a win and win the series,” Mincey said. “That never entered my mind one time when I was on the mound.”
Holbrook marveled over how his players refused to let the first game slip away for a series loss and then found a way to win the series in the second game.
“They could easily have felt sorry for themselves and not come out with any energy (after the Friday loss),” Holbrook said. “They played their butts off. That’s all we can ask them, and through thick and thin against a great opponent, they competed their rear ends off. We did handle adversity. You have to (do that) in this game, and you have to overcome it.”
The Gamecocks travel to Charleston to play The Citadel at Riley Park Tuesday at 7 p.m.