David Cloninger

Gamecocks pick up one of their own as they live to fight on

It was nothing. When Jonah Bride came in hard to the plate and slammed into Rhode Island catcher Chase Livingston (and was out at home, and the game, for his effort), it was just another in a long line of plays.

Yet South Carolina drew inspiration from it, and it carried the Gamecocks through that game and the next to force Tuesday’s winner-take-all showdown for the Super Regionals.

“Jonah getting thrown out, they wanted to win for him, because everybody knows what an incredibly nice kid he is, so they felt awful for him,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said following USC’s Sunday sweep. “Maybe we rallied around him a little bit. Maybe we used that incident to our advantage some, who knows?”

Baseball teams need stuff like this. It’s a sport where superstition is its backbone, clavicle and third metatarsal. You eat/drink/wear/do something and have a great day, you will eat/drink/wear/do something the next game because you never mess with a winning streak.

The Gamecocks know it. They once taped a ball to a fungo bat to wake their slumbering offense and lifted it as high as their first national championship trophy. A third baseman who couldn’t find a sitter for his pet suddenly saw the tyke turned into #FearTheFish, and the little guy was swimming in his tank all the way to Omaha.

I know it. I once wore the same ballcap every day for 15 years because the team it represented won over 1,500 games, 14 division titles, five pennants and one by-God world championship while I was wearing it. If I quit wearing it or got a new one, they might never have done that.

Crash Davis knew it as well, although decorum prohibits the exact reasoning in this space.

Facts are that USC bombarded Rhode Island 23-2 because the Rams’ pitching ran out. The Gamecocks had been waiting for a chance to break out, and when URI’s bullpen entered, it was bye-bye ballgame. UNCW felt confident in its offense, but was also gasping with its pitching. USC got enough early runs and an out-of-nowhere masterpiece from closer-turned-starter Tyler Johnson to force Tuesday’s matchup.

But, that collision at the plate. Where Bride, heedless of his own safety and thinking TEAM in big shiny letters as he raced home, drove his speeding semi into the concrete wall.

That kind of sacrifice clearly overrode that he shouldn’t have been sent, that it cost him the rest of that game and the next because of the game’s collision rules. Nobody in the Gamecocks’ dugout was thinking they’d just lost their best third baseman and one of their best hitters.

They were only thinking of Bride’s selflessness.

That’s why the entire bench was already on the field, ready to rumble if the Rams pressed the issue. That’s why Bride was escorted off the field with their applause and their “Don’t worry about this one, JB, we got you.”

“Sometimes plays like that happen, and boys will be boys, and you get some excitement going, and you forget about the pressure in hand,” Holbrook said. “Maybe in a small funny way, that relaxed our team. Because all of a sudden, the benches almost clear and everybody wants to stick their chest out and tell everybody how tough they are and you forget we’re getting ready to play a very important baseball game and for some reason, they relaxed. Maybe that was helpful to our team.”

I’m sure Holbrook and his staff knew very well what the real situation was, but they surely weren’t going to tell their kids otherwise. USC was relaxed, playing naturally and spun off two wins to get itself in position to erase all of Friday’s foibles. Why change that with talk of statistics?

Now it’s all set up so perfectly. LT Tolbert mimicked the Red Sox’ Kevin Millar in 2004 after the Friday loss, saying, “Don’t let us win this one.” With Braden Webb held to 54 pitches early Saturday because of a blister on his foot, he can be USC’s Curt Schilling and the bloody sock on Tuesday.

The Gamecocks are playing their best baseball of the season. They just need it for one more game. Whether or not Bride’s play was the impetus for it is irrelevant.

USC thinks it helped, so it helped.

You gotta believe.

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