Arguably South Carolina baseball's best season in half a decade came to an ugly, disappointing end at Baum Stadium on Monday, as the Gamecocks were steamrolled by Arkansas, 14-4, in Game 3 of their NCAA tournament Super Regional.
With the defeat, USC's hopes of advancing to the program's 12th College World Series ended. Carolina finished its first season under coach Mark Kingston with a 37-26 record, after falling at one point to 20-17.
After topping the Razorbacks 8-5 on Sunday to force a pivotal third game in the series, the Gamecocks seemed lost from the start Monday and never got on track during their second biggest margin of defeat on the year.
"They just have no weakness," Kingston said of the Hogs. "They have good leadership, they have great veteran players, they have power, they don't have a ton of team speed in terms of stealing bases, but they had a ton of speed on defense and they made not only the routine play but the great play. They have great starting pitching and power arms in the bullpen. It is just a team that it's hard to find ways to beat and then you are playing in one of the best environments in America here."
Things got off to a disastrous start in the first, as freshman starter Carmen Mlodzinski walked the leadoff batter, then gave up a single to left field.
The next batter, Arkansas freshman outfield Heston Kjerstad, grounded the ball to senior third baseman Jonah Bride, potentially setting up a double play, but when Bride turned to make the throw to second, no defender was covering the bag. Instead, Bride threw to first, but his throw was wide, skipping into foul territory and allowing the man on second to score.
Bride's error marked the team's fifth defensive miscue in 10 innings, despite the squad entering the series with a .982 fielding percentage, one of the best marks in the country.
Senior outfielder Luke Bonfield followed by roping a line drive single to right on the very next pitch for an RBI. Two batters later, redshirt senior second baseman Carson Shaddy, who dominated USC pitching in Games 1 and 2, crushed a moonshot to left-center field for a three-run home run, making it 5-0.
Despite that, the team still thought it could come back, junior outfielder Jacob Olson said.
"We came back so many times this year, especially Vanderbilt. We were down eight and came back and won that game. We had no doubt at all. We just kept fighting until the end," he said.
But from there, the offensive onslaught continued with two runs in the second, another in the third, five more in the fifth and one in the seventh. All told, USC trotted out seven pitchers, with six of them giving up runs.
"We thought the guys we gave the ball to tonight would do the job," Kingston said. "We just didn't. At the end of the day, we had confidence in our guys. We had put them in roles to be successful. Tonight just wasn't our night. Everything we threw up there they hit and hit hard."
Bonfield finished the day with a 3-4 mark at the plate and four RBIs. Freshman third baseman Casey Martin added two RBIs and two runs on 2-4 hitting and junior outfielder Eric Cole chipped in five runs and two RBIs while going 3-3 with two walks.
Arkansas' bats were helped significantly by walks and wild pitches from South Carolina's hurlers — after USC coach Mark Kingston stressed the importance of limiting free passes Sunday, the Gamecocks gave up six in the first five innings, also hitting two batters.
South Carolina's runs came from a pair of solo home runs by Olson late and a bizarre sequence of events in the fourth inning, starting with a single from Bride and a double from senior second baseman Justin Row that bounced in and out of the left fielder's glove.
With junior shortstop LT Tolbert at the plate, an 0-2 offering from Arkansas junior starter Isaiah Campbell skipped in the dirt and nearly caught him in the foot. As Tolbert had checked his swing, the home plate umpire remained at the plate, appealing to the third base umpire while the ball squirted to the backstop. Arkansas junior catcher Grant Koch appeared to think the play was being ruled dead because of a hit batter and stood at the plate while both runners raced home.
While the 11,217 fans in attendance and Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn were furious and made their displeasure known, the umpires maintained their call after a brief huddle.
Carolina ended up drawing six walks of its own on the night, but the Gamecocks went 1-11 with runners on and 0-7 with runners in scoring position.
"I'm not satisfied, but I've enjoyed (the run)," senior designated hitter Madison Stokes said. "I wouldn't take anything back. I wouldn't trade anything for these four years, through the bad times, through the good times. I wouldn't trade this team for anything, but I'm not satisfied because we didn't accomplish what we wanted to accomplish."