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Baseball: Slim SEC window just got slimmer

Moments after Thursday’s final out, the USC baseball team ducked into the dugout and into the tunnel. The forecast was for rain, so the players had been instructed to rush the tarp over the field.

The way things are going, more than just the Gamecocks’ field is in danger of being washed away.

A late-season swoon continued Thursday night, and there’s little time to recover. A 13-2 loss to Tennessee put USC in more danger of missing the SEC tournament, and leaving its NCAA chances in question.

South Carolina (35-19 overall, 13-15 in the SEC) probably has to win the final two games of the series to make the SEC tournament. If it only wins one more, it needs a lot of help or else it will be at home next week while eight other teams go to Hoover, Ala.

“We came into this series knowing we had to win two out of three, and we’ve still got two to go,” Tanner said. “So we certainly still got life.”

The Gamecocks were dominated in all facets on Thursday, and looked out of sorts in the opener of the most critical series of the season.

Tanner tried to emphasize the performance of Tennessee pitcher Nick Hernandez, who came one out from handing USC its first shutout of the decade at Sarge Frye Field. Only James Darnell’s two-run homer prevented that.

But South Carolina’s hitters had a season-low three hits, less than Tennessee’s Cody Brown. The Volunteers also hit four homers — one inside the park.

The Gamecocks committed two fielding errors, and seemed to have a couple more mental ones.

Darnell was doubled off second base to end the fourth inning, unaware that Tennessee’s right fielder had caught a long flyout.

In the second inning, Tennessee’s Kentrail Davis was credited with an inside-the-park home run when USC center fielder Whit Merrifield slowed down after the ball hit off the wall. But Tanner absolved Merrifield, saying the ball hit off the second wall, and thus should have been ruled a homer, which is why Merrifield let up.

The last inside-the-park homer by an opponent at Sarge Frye Field was April 20, 2005, by Clemson’s Tyler Colvin in a 7-5 victory against USC.

“I don’t think we were flat,” Gamecock shortstop Reese Havens said. “Things just didn’t go our way tonight, both sides offensively and defensively. ... You’ve got to flush it and come back and see what we can do (today).”

Tennessee’s lead was 9-0 after the fifth inning, at which point a lot of fans began leaving. Most were gone by the final out.

South Carolina was once a favorite to be one of the eight national seeds when the NCAA tournament starts in two weeks. But its recent slide — it has lost seven of nine in the SEC — could put its NCAA chances in peril.

The Gamecocks are still likely to make it because of a good ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index. But losing this series and not making the SEC tournament would lead to an uncomfortable wait.

“There’s pressure on us, there’s some pressure on other teams in the league right now,” Tanner said. “We’ve got to respond, there’s no question about it.”

Smoak a finalist. USC first baseman Justin Smoak is one of 16 semifinalists for the Dick Howser Trophy, given annually to college baseball’s top player. The Gamecock junior is hitting .380 with 20 home runs and 59 RBIs.



.......................................................

 Arkansas  USC
Polk lf 4 1 1 3 Havens ss 3 1 0 0
Beasley rf 1 0 0 0 Merrifield cf 4 0 0 0
Lima 2b 3 0 3 1 Smoak 1b 4 0 0 0
Moore 3b 1 0 1 0 Darnell 3b 4 1 2 2
Liles rf 5 0 0 1 Disher dh 4 0 1 0
Forsythe ph 1 0 0 0 An. Crisp 2b 3 0 0 0
Wright 2b 0 0 0 0 Lail rf 3 0 0 0
Gomes c 5 2 1 0 Enders c 3 0 0 0
Davis cf 4 2 1 1 Wingo 2b 2 0 0 0
Brown ss 5 3 4 2 Royal ph 1 0 0 0
Lockwood 1b 3 3 2 3 Mack lf 0 0 0 0
Frazier dh 1 1 0 0  
Griffin dh 2 0 0 0  
Grisham ss 4 1 0 0  
Bibee lf 0 0 0 0  
Totals 39 13 13 11 Totals 31 2 3 2
Tennessee010351120—13
USC 000 000 002 —2


E—Lima; Brown; Lail; Wideberg. DP—UT 1; USC 1. LOB—UT 9; USC 3. 2B—Brown 2. HR—Polk; Davis; Brown; Lockwood; Darnell. HBP—Lima 2; Gomes; Frazier. SH—Grisham.





 


Tennessee

Pitcher IP H R ER BB SO  
Hernandez W, 2-5 9 3 2 2 1 8


USC



Atwood L, 5-3 3 5 4 4 3 2
Thomas 1 3 5 5 2 1
Wideberg 2 2 2 0 0 3
Casey 1 2 2 2 0 2
Costner 1 1 0 0 0 1

WP—Thomas; Wideberg. HBP—by Atwood (Lima); by Atwood (Frazier); by Thomas (Lima); by Wideberg (Gomes).

Umpires: HP—Jeff Head. 1B—Tony Manners. 3B—Steve Dew.

T: 2:39. A: 4,243.

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