After Saint Louis tied Friday night’s Columbia Regional game with an eighth-inning rally, South Carolina needed to conjure up some of its famous magic from the past three postseasons.
The Gamecocks knew exactly where to find the rabbit when they reached into the hat.
A four-run response in the bottom half of the eighth propelled the Gamecocks to a 7-3 victory against the Billikens at Carolina Stadium, the 25th consecutive home win in the postseason dating back to 2002.
Keyed by an error and a stolen base to start the inning, USC scored four runs off four SLU pitchers, with Kyle Martin’s RBI single and Graham Saiko’s RBI double off Marco Mejia the big blows in the rally.
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“Every day this week in practice, I told them, ‘Adversity is coming our way. You’ll play a long time if you handle it the right way, and you won’t play long if you don’t respond to it,’” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “That’s just the nature of the NCAA tournament. As soon as that inning happened, I told them, ‘It’s come. Now let’s respond the right way.’”
It helps to have a team full of players that know what to do when a tournament game gets close.
Closer Tyler Webb (3-2), who pitched the final two innings for the win, is one of those players. The senior left-hander retired six of the seven batters he faced — five by strikeout — to pick up his 17th save and lower his ERA to 1.17. His strikeout to end the eighth with an SLU runner on second kept the Billikens from taking the lead.
“We have a couple of veteran guys on the team in the lineup that have been there and experienced a couple of those comebacks in the postseason,” Webb said. “They kept the morale up in the dugout. It was all encouragement in there throughout that inning (when SLU tied the game). This team in the postseason believes that we can come back, and it shows.”
Top-seeded South Carolina (40-18), which has compiled 14 straight seasons of 40 or more wins, advanced to play third-seeded Liberty (35-27) Saturday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN2. The Flames defeated second-seeded Clemson (39-21) earlier in the day, which dumped the Tigers into the losers’ bracket to play the fourth-seeded Billikens (41-20) at 2 p.m.
The Billikens battled back from a 3-0 deficit with one run in the seventh and two more in the eighth to spoil Nolan Belcher’s start. The senior left-hander gave up one run on four hits and no walks in 61/3 innings, although he did allow three hits in the seventh, capped by Mike Vigliarolo’s RBI single.
Two errors by USC third baseman Chase Vergason in the eighth inning led to both of the Saint Louis runs. His second errant throw sailed over Martin’s head at first and allowed both runners to score with two outs and tie the game at 3.
With all the momentum in the Billikens’ favor, coach Darin Hendrickson knew his team let a prime opportunity slip away
“You’ve got to capitalize. You can’t let these guys off the hook at all. We needed to stay on the gas, and we didn’t do it,” Hendrickson said. “You always preach to your team that when you put up runs, you’ve got to have a shutdown inning. In the eighth inning when we tied the game, we felt like the pressure turned to them. They’re a seasoned team that’s been through it. We’re still learning and growing.”
Vigliarolo, who saw Martin’s chopper of a single bounce high off his glove for the go-ahead run, agreed with that assessment.
“They got the leadoff runner on and put some more pressure on us, and we just couldn’t shut the door,” he said. “I thought we had them. We were in a great spot. But this is a fantastic atmosphere to play.”
The Gamecocks got out to a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning off Saint Louis starter Clay Smith (8-3) on a pair of singles and LB Dantzler’s hard groundout. Saiko’s solo home run into the left-field seats upped USC’s lead to 2-0. Batting in the seventh spot in the lineup for the first time all season after primarily hitting leadoff, Saiko delivered his second home run of the year.
“It doesn’t matter where you hit in the lineup. I’m going to hit wherever Coach puts me,” Saiko said. “Luckily I put some good swings on the ball tonight and got some big hits to help the team win.”
Max Schrock got a pair of hits as the new leadoff hitter, as did the five through eight batters in the order, Grayson Greiner, Martin, Saiko and Connor Bright. Another run came home in the fourth on Connor Bright’s RBI single that scored Greiner, an inning that almost was derailed by a runner’s interference call at second base that meant an automatic double play.
“Those guys have been in some humdingers of games in the NCAA tournament, and that certainly helps,” Holbrook said.
USC postgame video
Saint Louis postgame video