Good things always seem to happen to South Carolina in the NCAA tournament. Need an example?
Tanner English had 458 plate appearances in his two seasons for the Gamecocks without hitting a home run when he stepped into the batter’s box in the third inning of Saturday night’s game against Liberty at Carolina Stadium.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pound outfielder proceeded to blast a ball off Liberty reliever Jared Lyons over the left-field fence for the first homer of his career, a two-run shot that exemplified how fortuitous things were going against the Flames in a 19-3 win that propelled the top-seeded Gamecocks into Sunday’s 7 p.m. regional championship game.
“I was smiling the whole time around the bases,” English said. “When I hit it, I didn’t think it had a chance. I started busting my tail around first base, and I kind of looked up and the umpire was signaling that it went out. I thought it was some kind of sick joke at first. Then I realized it wasn’t.”
English was mobbed by his teammates, who poured out of the dugout to greet him after he crossed home plate.
“Everybody was swinging at me and getting pumped up. It was cool,” he said of the response.
USC (41-18), which has won 26 consecutive NCAA tournament games at home dating to 2002, will play the winner of Sunday’s 1 p.m. losers’ bracket game between Clemson (40-21) and Liberty (35-28). Either team would have to defeat the Gamecocks twice — once on Sunday and once on Monday — to claim the regional title. USC freshman left-hander Jack Wynkoop will start for the Gamecocks.
“It puts you in a great position for the remainder of the weekend,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good spot.”
The regional winner will advance to play the winner of the North Carolina regional next weekend. The 16-run margin of victory tied for the most in USC’s NCAA history, a 16-0 home win against The Citadel in 2001. And the 19 runs were second to the 21 scored in a win against Florida International in the 1998 regional at Miami.
English also had two singles, including an infield hit in the eighth that delivered his third RBI, as well as a nice diving catch in center on the night. But he received plenty of help from his teammates, too.
Left-hander Jordan Montgomery (5-1) threw seven scoreless innings, allowing three hits and no walks while striking out a career-high 11 batters as he lowered his ERA to 1.67.
“Jordan threw it as well as he’s thrown it all season,” Holbrook said.
Liberty coach Jim Toman agreed about Montgomery, who struck out the side in the second inning after the Flames put runners on second and third with no outs.
“He had us off-balance pretty much the whole night,” Toman said.
New leadoff man Max Schrock blasted a two-run homer in the fifth inning, his sixth home run of the season. That upped his RBI total to 39, second on the team. Connor Bright collected a pair of hits and three RBIs, which included a two-run single in front of English’s homer in the third inning.
The Gamecocks, who finished with 19 hits, exploded for nine runs in the eighth inning, highlighted by Kyle Martin’s three-run homer.
“I could tell they had energy today. They were ready to go,” Holbrook said. “We played very good baseball tonight.”
South Carolina rocked the Flames back on their heels in the first inning by jumping to a 3-0 lead when Liberty starter Brooks Roy (7-6) couldn’t make plays on a pair of comebackers. Both balls could have resulted in double plays, but he got no outs on the first one with a throwing error and one out on the second one when he didn’t make the play quickly enough.
That left the bases loaded and led to consecutive bases-loaded walks with two outs to Martin, Graham Saiko and Bright. The walks ended the night for Roy, who threw five shutout innings against the Gamecocks in a February start.
Jim Toman postgame