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Baseball: Powerless to finish

RALEIGH — It ended with Reese Havens helplessly on deck. In the dugout were Justin Smoak, James Darnell and Phil Disher, all just as powerless.

Perhaps the best collection of hitters in USC’s recent baseball history saw their season — and probably their college careers — end on Sunday night. And it ended in unexpected fashion: a low-scoring, 2-1 loss to N.C. State in the final game of an NCAA tournament regional.

“It’s kinda tough to put it into words right now,” Havens said. “But it’s not the way we wanted to go out.”

He meant the season, but he also could have meant their college careers.

Havens, Smoak and Darnell are all juniors who are expected to be picked high in Thursday’s major league draft. Disher is a senior. The quartet combined for 79 home runs this season.

But their final game, if it was that, was decided on a check swing.

N.C. State (41-20) got the winning run when Matt Payne squeezed out an infield single with the bases loaded and two down in the seventh inning. Payne’s hit went into just the right spot, in between Havens and Darnell in the shortstop-third base hole.

The game’s other runs were solo homers by Havens in the first inning and Jeremy Synan in the fifth inning.

If it was Havens’ final day as a Gamecock, it was a great one. In the day’s first game, he hit a game-winning, two-run homer to beat James Madison, and push USC into a rematch with N.C. State.

USC (40-23) needed to beat N.C. State twice, but instead went 2-2 in the regional, losing both games to N.C. State by a run.

“We expected a lot more than what happened tonight,” Havens said.

The Gamecocks rode their hitting to the tournament but were over-matched by N.C. State’s outstanding bullpen. The Gamecocks managed three hits off five Wolfpack pitchers. N.C. State used its bullpen masterfully, changing pitchers for matchups in the latter innings.

South Carolina (40-23) did have a rally in the bottom of the seventh, which turned out to be its last chance.

When Havens came to the plate with one out and the tying run on second, N.C. State brought in a left-hander. Havens grounded out to move Enders to third before Whit Merrifield was walked.

That brought up Smoak. On an 2-2 pitch, he flew out to center field.

“I got a good pitch to hit, and I just got under it,” Smoak said. “It happens.”

Smoak and Havens both said it wasn’t certain they were leaving. But USC coach Ray Tanner said he expected Smoak to be among the first seven players taken and for Havens and Darnell also to be gone by the end of the second round.

The coach agreed that it seemed like more than just a season had ended.

“I’m gonna miss those guys,” Tanner said. “The recruiting situation (three years ago) with Havens and Smoak, the draft situation, I felt like we went through a lot before we ever started. Those guys have been super. ...

“So yeah I’m gonna miss that. But we’ll have other guys.”

On the delay. During the fifth inning there was a lightning delay of an hour and 19 minutes. Very little rain fell, but officials had to wait for the weather system to go through the area.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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