South Carolina suffered three losses by 11 or more runs in 2017, including an 11-0 defeat at the hands of LSU in the SEC Tournament that was the final game of USC’s season.
The Gamecocks appeared to be headed to a blowout loss Sunday afternoon at Clemson as they trailed 6-0 after four innings in the rubber match of the rivalry series.
Instead, South Carolina responded by scoring seven runs in the final five innings to tie the game at 7-7. USC went on to lose 8-7 on a walk-off triple by Drew Wharton, but Gamecocks infield LT Tolbert said he learned something about USC on Sunday.
“Last year’s team wouldn’t have done that, and I think that starts at the top. And I’m not afraid to say that,” Tolbert said outside USC’s dugout Sunday evening. “Coach (Mark) Kingston, I’ll go to war with that guy any day and I think everybody feels the same.
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“There’s a different feel this year. When we get down it’s not the same. We’re battling back. ... Friday night we came back and won. Today we were right there. It just didn’t go our way. But there’s never a doubt in our mind or a lack of confidence, and I think that starts with coach Kingston. We’re going to be fine. It starts with him.”
Kingston was hired in late June to replace Chad Holbrook as the Gamecocks coach. Holbrook, who resigned June 6, took USC to the Super Regionals twice, but stepped down after missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the past three seasons.
“I learned a lot about my team today,” Kingston said Sunday. “I learned that when we fell behind 6-0 we’re not going to give up to anybody at any time, and I think that’s important. The message I just gave the team is that we’re obviously disappointed with the loss, but we learned a lot about ourselves.”
TJ Hopkins started South Carolina’s rally with a three-run homer to left to cut the lead to 6-3 in the fifth inning.
Carlos Cortes drove in a run in the sixth on an RBI groundout, but the Gamecocks still trailed 7-4 heading to the eighth.
Cortes added an RBI single in the eighth to cut the lead to 7-5, and USC quickly put the pressure on Clemson in the ninth.
South Carolina had runners on first and second with one out when Tolbert blasted a 1-1 pitch to deep right center that went off the wall and scored one.
Chris Cullen followed with a sac fly to center to tie the game at 7-7 before Clemson closer Ryley Gilliam was able to get out of trouble.
The Tigers went on to earn their fourth consecutive series win but not before South Carolina made them work.
“Last year’s team, we wouldn’t have even been in that ballgame. It could’ve gotten out of hand, 10-0. When we were down 6-0 that would’ve been it. And I think that shows the difference in this team and how we just won’t give up,” Tolbert said. “It starts with coach Kingston, just the confidence that he instills in us. I think after TJ hit that homer, which even when we were down 6-0, he was still saying we’re going to win this ballgame. But after that homer you could just tell there was a swagger. You knew that he had confidence in us and that’s a big difference, and it makes us feel a lot different and more confident as well.”