Two of the SEC’s best teams went at it for nine innings before the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide emerged with the 2-1 victory on Saturday at Carolina Stadium thanks to sterling pitching from Justin Kamplain and Thomas Burrows and two big plays from left fielder Casey Hughston.
By evening the series, Alabama (29-14, 13-7) sets up a Sunday showdown with the No. 11 Gamecocks (33-11, 11-9) in a nationally televised game at 1 p.m. on ESPN.
USC coach Chad Holbrook wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I told the guys we’re going to treat this like a (NCAA) Super Regional, do or die, win or go home tomorrow,” Holbrook said. “I told them if that makes them tight and they feel pressure, then they came to the wrong baseball program to play ball. I believe that.”
As the Gamecocks head down the stretch in the regular season – 12 games remain before the SEC tournament – Holbrook wants to see his team play well enough to earn a national seed, and that starts Sunday against the Tide.
“It’s an important game. Does our season rest on it? No, but it’s important,” he said. “We’re playing at home, and we should play with a sense of urgency and play like our hair’s on fire. If we don’t, I’ll be disappointed. That doesn’t guarantee us that we’re going to win, but I expect my team to give an incredible amount of effort.”
The Gamecocks lost Saturday because Alabama got standout pitching from the pair of left-handers: starter Kamplain (4-2) and closer Burrows, who pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings for his ninth save.
“We really needed a good start, and I thought Kamplain did a nice job,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. “He took us deep enough to where we could go straight to Burrows. We felt like we needed to go for this one right here with the way the game was flowing, and I thought Burrows was terrific in the back end. He’s just a strike machine. He really has no fear, and he goes at hitters.”
And the Tide got a pair of big plays from Hughston, who singled in the go-ahead run in the seventh inning off USC starter Jack Wynkoop (5-3) and threw out Grayson Greiner at the plate to end the bottom half of the frame after Tanner English singled. Holbrook had no problem with Greiner being sent on the sharply-hit single to left with two outs.
“Here’s how we play around here: When there are two outs and we get a hit, nine times out of 10 we’re sending the runner,” Holbrook said. “We make guys throw us out, and we try to win the game. That might have been our best chance to score that inning, and we took it.”
Hughston admitted that he was surprised to see Greiner trying to score, and even though his throw was a little high and up the line, catcher Wade Wass still had time to make the play.
“I was coming in pretty hard and I wasn’t that far out in the outfield,” Hughston said. “When they sent him, I just came up hot and threw it. Wade made a really good play at the plate and got the out.”
Hughston’s RBI single in the top of the inning made the difference, although USC reliever Taylor Widener managed to pitch out of a bases-loaded jam after the hit.
“It becomes execution. It becomes a pitch here, a play there,” Holbrook said.
Alabama took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Ben Moore drilled a two-out solo home run off Wynkoop that landed in the left-field seats. South Carolina tied the game at 1-1 in the third inning when DC Arendas led off with a double and came around to score on Marcus Mooney’s sacrifice fly.
But the Gamecocks could only manage one hit over the final four innings.
“It’s a disappointing loss. I thought that Jack and Taylor deserved a better fate,” Holbrook said. “We played our hearts out but we just didn’t do enough offensively. We had a couple of opportunities to score there and we just didn’t quite cash in. It’s a tough loss but by no fault of our players. They played as hard as they could and tried as hard as they could and we just came up short.”