David Cloninger

Commentary: Gamecocks playing two opponents this weekend

South Carolina's Josh Reagan reacts as Florida's Nick Horvath rounds the bases after hitting a homer Friday in the 9th inning at Founders Park in Columbia.
South Carolina's Josh Reagan reacts as Florida's Nick Horvath rounds the bases after hitting a homer Friday in the 9th inning at Founders Park in Columbia. gmelendez@thestate.com

This just in – Florida is still mad about that whole 2011 thing.

The game was right where South Carolina wanted it. It had squandered a couple of opportunities, but led 4-3. Coach Chad Holbrook gambled, asking a team which had 20 sacrifice bunts all season to do it twice in big situations, and come up a winner when Madison Stokes and Dom Thompson-Williams each flawlessly performed. He’d also trusted Tyler Johnson to throw to the meat of the Gators’ order in the eighth, instead of going to closer Josh Reagan. Johnson responded with a 1-2-3 frame.

With Reagan in the game in the ninth, it was over. The Gamecocks were finally going to beat the Gators, which had won nine of the last 10 in the series. They were going to go up 1-0 in a best-of-three series for SEC supremacy and start chiseling their name onto the SEC championship trophy.

Florida said, “Not so fast.”

Reagan gave up two solo home runs in the ninth to turn a 4-3 USC lead into a 5-4 deficit, then the Gators erased a leadoff single in the bottom of the frame by removing a bunt possibility from Marcus Mooney and rolling a double-play ball. Then they retired Thompson-Williams a foot short of USC’s third homer to end it.

It’s a game of inches, where any move, placement or bad call can make a difference. The Gamecocks took advantage of theirs, lost a couple of others, but still had the lead.

But in the end, they didn’t, and now they have to deal with the repercussions.

“Great teams make you pay when you don’t execute,” Holbrook said. “Certainly the opportunity was there to win the game, and we didn’t capitalize on it.”

USC checked out of Friday still tied for the SEC lead with Florida. There’s an advantage to playing at home, but now the team has to get its mind right for Saturday and Sunday.

“We just got to forget about this one as quick as we can. Baseball’s a funny game,” said Chris Cullen, who had three hits and drove in two. “We come out here tomorrow with our heads on straight. No one’s down right now. We got two more games ahead of us.”

It was one loss by one run to the No. 1 team in the country. Yet it’s more fuel for the folks who have seemed to take this season as a case of, “When’s the other shoe going to drop?” bringing up USC’s past successes and how this team apparently isn’t living up to them.

USC only has nine losses, but six are to teams that to many, USC isn’t allowed to lose to. Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida have all beaten the Gamecocks this season, and it doesn’t help that all but the Gators are as up and down as USC’s ninth inning on Friday.

Florida simply has USC’s number right now. It immediately took advantage of the Gamecocks’ mistakes, such as JJ Schwarz’s shingle-denting home run after LT Tolbert bobbled a two-out ground ball. It was waiting for Johnson to mess up against the middle of the lineup, but he didn’t. Instead, it was Reagan who served up homers to the bottom of the order.

The Gamecocks beat Florida in the 2011 national championship series and belted them again in the first game of the 2012 College World Series. Otherwise, they’re 2-13 against Florida in recent history.

They can start changing that Saturday. Florida’s a great team on talent alone, but now USC is fighting an extra edge – the Gators are in the Gamecocks’ heads.

“Things can turn in a second, and this is a big regular-season series,” Holbrook said. “We lost one game tonight. We didn’t lose five or six. And I hope our kids realize that and understand that.”

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