A four-run first-inning deficit was too much for South Carolina to overcome Thursday night at Vanderbilt as the Commodores handed USC a 6-3 loss for its first SEC defeat of the season.
The first five batters of the game reached for Vandy, thanks in part to a walk and an error, before Carolina ace Clarke Schmidt was able to get out of the inning with a double play and a strikeout.
The fifth-ranked Gamecocks (23-4, 6-1 SEC) never got closer than within three runs as Vandy ace Jordan Sheffield kept USC off balance with a mid- to upper 90s fastball and sharp off-speed pitches.
“Sheffield, the way he was throwing tonight, that was very, very impressive,” Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. “We’ve seen some good guys throw up here, Sonny Gray and some other big-leaguers, and that was as impressive a performance as I’ve seen from a stuff standpoint.”
USC cut the lead to 4-1 in the fourth inning as John Jones doubled and scored on an error, but No. 3 Vanderbilt pushed its lead to 6-1 with a run in the fifth and another in the sixth.
The Gamecocks got as close as 6-3 in the seventh as TJ Hopkins doubled and scored on a sac fly by Marcus Mooney. DC Arendas singled and scored on a groundout. Carolina would get no closer the rest of the way.
“Our guys battled and competed. We got off to a tough start down 4-0 before we really broke a sweat, but after that we settled down and we played and we battled and competed and pushed some runs across,” Holbrook said. “Tip your cap to your opponent on a night like tonight, and we’ll get back at it tomorrow and see if we can change the outcome.”
Schmidt (6-1) bounced back from his early struggles to pitch eight strong innings. He allowed eight hits and six runs with four earned. Schmidt struck out nine and walked one.
Jones went 2-for-4 with a double to lead the Gamecocks, bouncing back from an 0-for-6 performance Tuesday night against College of Charleston.
Gene Cone, Alex Destino, Hopkins and Arendas also recorded hits for USC. Destino’s single in the eighth inning extended his hitting streak to 19 games.
Vanderbilt (22-4, 5-2) was led by Alonzo Jones and Ethan Paul, who both had a pair of hits. Paul hit a solo homer in the sixth inning.
Sheffield (4-1) earned the win for the Commodores, allowing three runs, two earned, in seven innings of work. He struck out nine and walked three.
Star of the game: Jordan Sheffield: The Vandy starter consistently hit 96 mph and made it tough on Gamecocks hitters all night.
Play of the game: The first inning error by LT Tolbert gave Vanderbilt momentum, as well as the bases loaded with no outs.
Stat of the game: 4: The four runs allowed by USC in the first inning are the most allowed by the Gamecocks in the first inning all year.
USC needed a low-scoring game: When you are facing a pitcher as good as Sheffield you are asking too much of your offense to bounce back from an early 4-0 deficit. For Carolina to win it needed a 3-2 type of game.
Extra-base hits doomed Schmidt: The righty allowed nine hits in each of his first two SEC starts, but the large majority of them were singles. He allowed eight hits Thursday, and five of them went for extra bases.
Where was the crowd?: Yes the game was played on a week night and yes there was a threat of severe weather, but I was shocked by the number of empty seats at Hawkins Field. The announced attendance for the top five matchup was 3,384. For comparison, South Carolina had a sellout crowd of more than 8,000 Tuesday night against College of Charleston.
What: South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt, Game 2
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 31
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
Probable pitchers: USC – Braden Webb (Fr. RHP); Vandy – Kyle Wright (So. RHP)
Watch: SEC Network Plus (Digital)
Radio: 107.5 FM in the Columbia area