Two pitchers produced sterling outings Sunday for South Carolina and Missouri baseball at Founders Park, but in the end, only one remained in the game just one pitch too long, as USC sophomore outfielder Carlos Cortes blasted a walk-off home run in the ninth inning for the 1-0 win.
Mizzou junior lefty Tyler LaPlante kept the Gamecocks (30-21, 15-12 SEC) in knots for most of the game with offspeed pitches for eight scoreless innings, as USC as a team continues to struggle against left-handers.
"Guys like that, if they're on, if they have their command, they have their control and can put the ball where they want, change speeds, that makes it really hard," coach Mark Kingston said. "There was a guy that pitched here named Michael Roth who made a lot of history here doing exactly what that kid did today to us."
Carolina sophomore righty Cody Morris, meanwhile, flashed the power arm that has made him so dangerous at points this season, tying his career high in strikeouts with 10 and establishing a new personal best with seven shutout innings after struggling his past few starts.
The turning point for Morris came early, as Missouri used two walks to put runners in first and second with two outs in the first inning. Senior third baseman Alex Samples then singled to right field, seemingly scoring a run. But Cortes made an on-target throw to nail the runner with ease, ending the threat.
"It was pretty relieving. Helped me settled in," Morris said. "I think my confidence kinda grew as the game went on. (Junior shortstop LT Tolbert) kinda came up to me and said, 'Hey man, just go out there and compete, just do your best,' and ever since then I think a light turned on and I was able to just go out there and command my stuff and compete."
After seven innings, Morris exited to make way for reliever Eddy Demurias, who threw two scoreless frames, escaping a jam in the ninth and earning the win. It was also a measure of redemption for Demurias, who threw poorly in the first game of the series and gave up three runs in 4 1/3 innings before that.
"We have the ultimate confidence in him. If you lose with Eddy, you just tip the cap and say it wasn't meant to be today, because he's going to fight with everything he's got when he's out there on the mound," Kingston said. "He struggled a little bit the other night, (but) we tell players to flush it and move on, and as coaches we need to do the same and put him back out there."
Mizzou, meanwhile, stuck with LaPlante, and it worked pretty perfectly for 112 pitches, as South Carolina had just four hits and one walk in eight innings. Three of those hits were doubles, but each time LaPlante steadied himself and bounced back to shut down any opportunities — the Gamecocks were 0-7 with runners on base.
LaPlante came out in the ninth inning to face Cortes, seemingly to preserve the lefty-on-lefty matchup. It didn't work, as the Gamecock outfielder smashed the first pitch he saw, a slider, over the right field wall for his team-leading 14th long ball of the year,
"I was pretty positive that I was going (to hit a home run)," Cortes said. "I had thought about it for about two innings, hitting in the bottom of the ninth, leading off and hitting the first pitch over the wall."
The victory not only clinched the series, it was vital for keeping USC's hopes for an NCAA tournament berth alive, and that made it one of the sweetest wins of the year for Kingston.
"Under the circumstances, last home SEC game of the year, such a battle to go back and forth, the series was resting on this game, and what it means for the implications of where we are in the SEC and the postseason after that ... I would say today was right up there in terms of importance," Kingston said.
Star of the game: Cody Morris, who turned in a career-best outing in 90-degree heat, permitting just three hits and three walks and recording USC's fifth seven-inning outing of the season.
"He's just a bulldog. He threw his fastball with conviction, and when his fastball is on like that, it's really hard for the opponent to hit his offspeed if he's in zone with it, and he commanded all three of his pitches well, in my opinion," Taylor said.
Play of the game: Outside of the obvious game-winning hit, the biggest play that seemed important in the moment and even larger in hindsight was Cortes' throw from right field in the bottom of the first that beat a Mizzou runner at home plate by at least six feet, saving a run and erasing Morris' most serious trouble of afternoon — two walks and a single.
Stat of the game: 14 of 32 stolen base attempts caught by throws from catcher Hunter Taylor this season, including two Sunday that led a sharp defensive effort from the Gamecocks to back Morris' outing.
"The defense was tremendous, and I think our defense has been tremendous all year. We take a lot of pride in that and guys know what we expect defensively. Hunter has been a godsend back there, how he's caught and how he's thrown out runners," Kingston said.
Who: South Carolina (30-21, 15-12 SEC) vs. USC Upstate (23-27-1, 5-13 ASUN)
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 15
Where: Founders Park, Columbia, South Carolina
Watch: Streaming online on SEC Network Plus via WatchESPN
Listen: 107.5 FM
Probable pitchers: South Carolina — Fr. RHP Carmen Mlodzinski (2-5, 4.93); USC Upstate — TBA