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GREENVILLE, N.C. — In the two days leading up to the Greenville Regional, Justin Dalles was so sick that USC coach Ray Tanner didn’t know if his junior catcher was going to be able to play.
On Saturday night, Dalles made East Carolina ill.
Dalles went 4-for-5 with seven RBIs, including a grand slam in the eighth inning and two-run homer in the sixth, to lead USC’s 17-hit attack in a 12-2 winners’ bracket victory at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
The Gamecocks (40-21) advance to today’s regional championship game at 6 p.m. They will face the winner of the 2 p.m. game between East Carolina (43-18) and Binghamton (30-21).
Any hint of Dalles’ food poisoning from Wednesday and Thursday was long gone — like his two homers.
Dalles upped his season totals to 14 homers and 44 RBIs, despite his reaction to chain-restaurant chicken.
Yet he refused to be slowed by throwing up on the bus and at practice before the tournament.
“It wasn’t game day. Thank goodness it went out of my system the night before (Friday’s first game),” he said. “But I was going to play.”
Tanner also played doctor with his lineup, inserting freshman Adam Matthews into the designated hitter role. Matthews, a platoon outfielder, proceeded to make the Pirates feel even worse as he went 4-for-5 with two solo homers. Tanner went with Matthews even though Parker Bangs had three hits, including a homer, in Friday’s opening win against George Mason.
Matthews, a former White Knoll High star who now has five homers, took advantage of his opportunity.
“Anytime I’m in there, I’m ready to go,” Matthews said. “Whatever my role is for this team, I’m going to do my best to execute.”
Tanner said the coaches thought Matthews gave the team the best matchup against Pirates starter Seth Maness (9-2).
“Adam is good, and he can get around the bases a little so we decided to go with him. He had a big night for us,” Tanner said.
Unlike Matthews, the Pirates didn’t take advantage of their chances. USC starter Blake Cooper (9-4) allowed 10 hits and walked two batters in the first five innings, but he kept pitching out of trouble as the Pirates stranded 12 runners. East Carolina loaded the bases in the third, fourth and fifth innings but could not score.
“I certainly felt that leaving so many runners on might hurt us, but I didn’t want to believe it,” East Carolina coach Billy Godwin said. “... Leaving runners on base is sometimes an issue, but I just kept encouraging. I didn’t want it to deflate us. I think it did catch up to us to be quite honest, though.”
Cooper threw a complete game, scattering 14 hits while allowing a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Corey Thompson in the eighth.
“He was just making good pitches at big times in the game,” East Carolina second baseman Ryan Wood. “He made a lot of good pitches tonight. I don’t think you can go through our lineup like he did and not do that.”
Dalles drilled a two-run homer in the sixth to up USC’s lead to 4-0. With Bradley on first after a single, Dalles tried to step out of the batter’s box, but as the pitch was delivered, he stepped back and hit the ball out.
“I asked for time, and I actually took my right hand off the bat,” Dalles said. “(The umpire) didn’t give me time. I stepped back a little bit but not out of the box. He threw a pitch in the zone, and it looked pretty good. I put a swing on it and there it went.”
With two outs, Matthews restarted the rally with a double down the left-field line. Bobby Haney’s single to right brought home the speedy Matthews, who slid around the attempted tag at the plate to give the Gamecocks a 5-0 lead.
“Adam Matthews is a special player,” Tanner said. “He’ll be in the starting lineup for us next year.”
USC pounded out 17 hits for the second consecutive game. DeAngelo Mack, Jackie Bradley, and Haney had two hits each, and Whit Merrifield extended his team-high hitting streak to 12 games.
Freshman left-hander Nolan Belcher is the probable starter for the Gamecocks today. But Tanner is taking nothing for granted.
“We’re in the best position but by no means are comfortable or relaxing,” he said. “We are playing in Greenville, North Carolina, and we know how good the Pirates are and how good they’ve been at home. We know we’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us.”
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