South Carolina pulled off its first SEC sweep of the season against Tennessee over the weekend, a feat not easily accomplished in conference play, especially against a ranked opponent.
But it was more impressive how they did it.
It took two days and 14 innings to win the first game of the series, 3-2, with the winning run scoring on the first career home run from freshman backup infielder Jordan Gore, who was 2-for-17 entering that at-bat.
The second victory featured a six-run, two-out rally in the ninth inning, when a dropped fly ball in the outfield kept the uprising alive. Junior catcher Grayson Greiner blasted a gram slam to cap the comeback, 9-6.
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No late-game heroics were needed in the finale, when freshman right-hander Wil Crowe pitched well for 71/3 innings to lead the Gamecocks to an 8-0 win.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two walk-offs and a shutout – their nation-leading 11th of the season.
After the wild weekend, USC coach Chad Holbrook tried to put it in perspective.
“We could easily be sitting here having lost two out of three,” he said. “A pitch here, a pitch there, a play here, a play there, and we lose two out of three. We consider ourselves very fortunate. I don’t think there’s much separation between us and Tennessee.”
But the series separated the Gamecocks (24-3, 6-3) – who stayed at No. 2 in the Baseball America Top 25 – from the Volunteers (19-7, 3-6 SEC) in the SEC East standings. USC now is tied with No. 13 Florida (19-8, 6-3) for first place, one game ahead of No. 7 Vanderbilt (23-6, 5-4).
“We’re in a good spot,” Holbrook said. “At the end of the day in this league, especially in the East, I think there’s going to be a lot of people bundled up. I don’t think there’s going to be a huge amount of separation between three or four teams.”
The players also realize how much a 3-0 weekend can help.
“It doesn’t happen often. Everybody in the league is about the same,” Crowe said. “There’s a fine line of who’s going to win and who’s not going to win. So it’s huge to win three and get ourselves a little ahead of .500.”
The difference between the good teams and the great teams is having great players who can rise to the moment in big games. Greiner, a Team USA player, is one of them.
Last week, there was concern Greiner might not play against the Vols because of a nagging bone bruise on his left thumb. All he did was step up and go 7-for-16 in the series with seven RBIs while catching all 32 innings to win SEC player of the week. Greiner, who also hit a big grand slam to fuel a comeback win against Clemson earlier this season, is hitting .356 average with four homers and a team-high 29 RBIs, which makes him the club’s first-half MVP.
“If he’s not one of the best two or three or four players in the country, then I don’t know who is. That performance he put on this weekend was incredible,” Holbrook said.
Incredible also might be the best word to describe the USC sweep of Tennessee. Holbrook hopes the Gamecocks can carry that momentum on a weekend road trip to Arkansas (17-10, 4-5 SEC) for a series that begins Thursday.
“We’re going to play a great Arkansas team with a phenomenal pitching staff, and it’s going to be hard to score on them. It’s hard to play there,” he said. “When you get a sweep in front of a hard trip like that, it takes the pressure off, so to speak. You can take a deep breath and say, ‘OK, let’s go play.’ Sometimes you go to a venue like Arkansas and you’re playing uphill, that might not be a good recipe.”
These Gamecocks, however, look to have all the ingredients of a winner.