David Cloninger

First-pitch futility dooms Gamecocks in loss to Rhode Island

South Carolina's Sammy Esposito took over for Chad Holbrook after his ejection during the Gamecocks game against Rhode Island Friday at Founders Park in the NCAA Baseball Tournament's Columbia Regional.
South Carolina's Sammy Esposito took over for Chad Holbrook after his ejection during the Gamecocks game against Rhode Island Friday at Founders Park in the NCAA Baseball Tournament's Columbia Regional. gmelendez@thestate.com

The beauty of baseball is how the situation changes on every pitch. It might seem like it’s one guy winning the battle between hitter and pitcher, but it’s the decisions the hitter and pitcher make between each throw that dictate success or failure.

South Carolina’s lack of good decisions cost it the first game of the NCAA Columbia Regional, and made what started as a gorgeous night uglier than an empty buttermilk glass.

The Gamecocks had the best start they could want. Rams ace Tyler Wilson checked into the game with the kind of numbers that don’t belong in the Atlantic 10. Get a hit off this guy, the book said, and ask for the ball, because it doesn’t happen that often.

Gene Cone took him onto Tanner Way as the game’s first batter. Dom Thompson-Williams screamed a line-drive double off the left-center fence. Alex Destino, following some chin music, belted Wilson’s next offering so hard that it nearly didn’t land before Destino was around third, pointing at Wilson and advising him against future foolishness.

USC stretched the lead to 4-0 and Wilson was working deep in counts. All the Gamecocks had to do was keep the pressure on him.

That held even as Clarke Schmidt ran into the same brick wall he’s constructed in his last three outings. His cruise control snapped, Schmidt was tagged for back-to-back homers in the fourth; he couldn’t get an out in the fifth as Rhode Island took a 5-4 lead.

There was no panic. Wilson wasn’t getting fresher – he’d have to come out sometime. USC just needed to hasten his departure.

TJ Hopkins led off with a double, lashing Wilson’s third pitch. The 3-4-5 hitters were due up. Hope you enjoyed that lead, Rams, because it’s about to be as short-lived as the average FOX sitcom.

Thompson-Williams popped to short. Jonah Bride grounded to third. Destino grounded to first. All were on the first pitch of the at-bat.

I understand the approach, and this has been the same at USC for years. “The best pitch you’re gonna see from a college pitcher,” the thought goes, “is the first.”

I get that. I do. And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen a lot of first-pitch homers sail into a palmetto frond over the years.

Those didn’t happen on Friday. And neither did the right approach to take in that situation.

Maybe it’s because this is coming from a guy who couldn’t get on base if he joined the military, but I’ve always thought the patient approach is best. Make the guy throw to you. Make him make the mistake. It’s better than you looking bad. The game-winning RBI can come from a walk, you know.

The Gamecocks needed to be patient. To make Wilson work. Let him keep getting flustered and uncomfortable and sweaty in the Famously Hot atmosphere, which was affecting him early. Anything but let him off the hook and get your struggling pitching back up there against a settled-in Rams offense.

USC didn’t. It was the batters’ decisions, not the coaching, but the ingrained coaching approach is, “Be aggressive early.” That cost USC in a six-pitch fifth, then two outs on three pitches in the sixth before DC Arendas, the weakest hitter on the team, worked a two-out walk.

Arendas was stranded on base, as well as Hopkins in the seventh when Thompson-Williams struck out and Bride grounded out on, you guessed it, a first pitch. Destino chased Wilson with a leadoff walk in the eighth, but USC again couldn’t get its head into the game to make it count.

Madison Stokes somehow was told to bunt while already holding two strikes on two failed bunt attempts. Chris Cullen fouled off the first and second pitches, then blooped to third. Seeking any kind of magic, John Jones pinch-hit for Arendas – and struck out.

The Gamecocks squandered a leadoff walk in the ninth, to a 30-25 team, and is in the loser’s bracket in its own regional. USC now needs to win four games over three days to advance.

Not saying it can’t be done, but better decisions in key situations have to be made.

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