HOOVER, Ala. — South Carolina coach Ray Tanner has been around baseball long enough that in-game chatter hardly stands out anymore. But this did.
“Insurance, insurance!” Tanner heard assistant coach Monte Lee yelling as the Gamecocks came in to the dugout for the bottom of the eighth inning Thursday. They had a three-run lead on Florida, one that was far from safe considering recent history.
“We’ve been there, that’s for sure,” Tanner said later. “So I knew what (Lee) was thinking — it’d be nice to score a few more.”
The Gamecocks did, and this time they held on.
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South Carolina’s 11-3 second-round win eliminated Florida and moved USC into a 4 p.m. game today against either Vanderbilt or LSU. It also appeared to give the Gamecocks an emotional lift after Wednesday’s demoralizing 5-4 loss to LSU, when USC led 4-0 entering the bottom of the ninth.
In that loss, three relief pitchers contributed to the collapse. On Thursday, one reliever — the staff’s former ace — got the save.
Mike Cisco was the Gamecocks’ Friday starter until the second-to-last weekend of the season, when he was demoted to the bullpen. He had seen sparse action since, facing just one batter in SEC action.
Tanner turned to him Thursday after starter Nick Godwin delivered seven solid innings. Cisco responded with two scoreless innings and said it felt good to be a part of things again.
“Confidence is a big thing, and every step is a confidence booster. You build on each outing,” Cisco said.
The junior said he would like to return to a starting role if he comes back next year — he’s eligible for the major league draft — but also thought he threw harder in short relief.
“It’s not discouraging to me if I’m in the pen the rest of this season,” Cisco said. “I’ve been a game away two years in a row from Omaha. So I’ll do whatever it takes.”
It’s taken a lot for South Carolina to finish games, or keep them close, since ace reliever Curtis Johnson sustained a season-ending arm injury in March. And with the starters struggling more late in the season, more offense was required.
The hitters came through Thursday, even though the Gamecocks and Gators both had 10 hits.
But Godwin stayed away from the big inning and only walked one.
South Carolina’s offense was more economical, twice scoring five runs in an inning. The bottom of the order, a weak point this season, was largely responsible for the second-inning rally. In the eighth, the big hit came from the usual suspect: Justin Smoak.
The first baseman’s three-run homer was the 60th of his career and made him the all-time RBI leader in USC history.
South Carolina (38-20) spent most of this season in the position of front-runner, but that ended with a late-season swoon.
But according to Smoak, the Gamecocks haven’t adopted an underdog approach or a no-respect mantra. No, they still see themselves as a team to beat.
“We’re always out there knowing that every game we’re going to have a chance to win,” Smoak said. “That’s always been our mentality and always will be. We’ve had some ups and downs the past couple weeks. But if we come out and play hard and play like we’re capable of, we’re going to be good.”
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.