Once, twice, three times South Carolina baseball took the lead over Liberty at Founders Park on Friday. Three times, the Flames came back to tie things.
Eventually, Liberty made the Gamecocks pay for those second chances, defeating USC, 6-5, in extra innings on Opening Day.
“They played a little bit cleaner brand of baseball. They won. We got to move on, get ready for tomorrow,” coach Mark Kingston said of the Gamecocks (0-1)
Liberty scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning without a base hit — senior Tyler Galazin reached out a fielding error by pitcher John Gilreath, advanced to second on a passed ball, made it to third on a groundout and raced home on a wild pitch.
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That was emblematic of a night in which Carolina’s pitching struck out 17 batters, but shot itself in the foot with four wild pitches, a passed ball and two easy stolen bases allowed.
“That was the difference in the game, clearly,” Kingston said. “That’s what I told the team afterwards. That needs to be cleaned up ... Our pitchers threw a lot of great pitches tonight, but we can’t give them five free bases.”
Sophomore right-hander Carmen Mlodzinski started on the mound, the undisputed Friday night guy throughout the preseason. But he struggled with location all day, Kingston said, and Liberty extended at-bats and made enough soft contact to get him in trouble every inning.
For the most part, Mlodzinski managed to escape the jams, but in the bottom of the third inning, he gave up a leadoff walk and single, battled back to get two outs, then saw his luck ran out when Flames sophomore Will Wagner scrapped out an infield single to deep shortstop to load the bases, then junior Cam Locklear smoked a double down the left field line to clear them.
That three-run double erased the lead South Carolina’s offense produced in the previous half-inning. Junior left fielder Luke Berryhill tripled off the right field wall, senior third baseman Jacob Olson reached on a fielding error and freshman designated hitter Brady Allen smashed a 3-1 offering over the left field wall in his first collegiate at-bat.
“The coaching staff, the players have been very welcoming to me,” Allen said. “They’ve been working on stuff with me, helping me out whenever I need help, so it’s not too shocking to be getting a good pitch and putting a good swing on it.”
Allen and Berryhill were just two of the five newcomers in USC’s lineup, and those newcomers accounted for the majority of the team’s RBIs and hits on the day.
Junior right fielder Andrew Eyster, another new face, gave Carolina a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the fifth when his shallow fly ball to left field dropped in between three Liberty defenders for a double, scoring senior catcher Chris Cullen.
It was a veteran, however, who gave South Carolina its final lead of the night — senior center fielder T.J. Hopkins delivered a mammoth blast over the center field fence in the bottom of the eighth inning, putting USC ahead after Liberty scored in the top half of the frame with a walk, two wild pitches and a soft bloop single.
Hopkins’ home run wasn’t enough though. With two outs in the top of the ninth, reliever Sawyer Bridges, who had breezed through 2 1/3 no-hit innings to that point, slipped and delivered a pitch that Liberty shortstop Will Wagner deposited far beyond the right field wall to make it 5-5 and force extra innings.
“I had just went hard the pitch before, had gotten a good swing-and-miss the previous at-bat, so I thought I’d go soft there, and the guy put a good swing on it,” Bridges said.
Bridges and the pitching staff didn’t get much help from the top of their own lineup, which posted a dreadful showing. Leadoff hitter Noah Campbell, a sophomore, went 0-for-6 with five strikeouts, and the top three hitters were a combined 2-for-16 with 10 strikeouts.
“We just gotta be better than that,” Hopkins, who struck out three times, said. “We train really hard to limit striking out as much as possible, and we just gotta be better than that.”
“They just need at-bats. They just need game at-bats,” Kingston said. “They’ll be fine.”
South Carolina and Liberty return for the second game in their three-contest set on Saturday at 3 p.m. Freshman left-hander Dylan Harley will pitch for USC, while Liberty will throw sophomore righty Mason Meyer.