USC Gamecocks Baseball

South Carolina misses sweep against Kentucky, setting up pivotal final SEC series

South Carolina baseball’s chance at an SEC series sweep died slowly by small ball Sunday, as Kentucky chipped away for a 6-2 win at Founders Park.

The Gamecocks’ pitching staff was never overwhelmed by a Wildcat lineup that had as many bunts (four) as it did extra base hits, but UK chipped away and took advantage of two USC errors to salvage one win and level both teams’ SEC record at 7-20.

“Disappointed in today but glad we won the series,” coach Mark Kingston said. “Ready to move on to the next one.”

That next one is the final series of the year, a road set at top-10 Mississippi State. Carolina (26-25) is currently fighting with Kentucky and Alabama for the 12th and final spot in the conference tournament, and it will need at least one win to have a chance.

South Carolina holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with Kentucky after this series win, but would lose a direct tiebreaker with Alabama. The Crimson Tide lost their season finale against Texas A&M to drop to 7-20 as well — All three teams are set to face top-10 opponents in their final series, and if they all finish the season in a tie, it will be broken based on the teams’ records against the conference’s highest-finishing common opponent.

“Two wins,” senior third baseman Jacob Olson said of the team will take from the Kentucky series. “Just to keep that momentum into next weekend is huge for us, trying to make the tournament.”

On Sunday, Kentucky seized a first-inning lead for the third time on the weekend, smacking back-to-back doubles off freshman starter Daniel Lloyd.

Once more, however, South Carolina erased that lead — in the bottom of the third, the Gamecocks tied the game without ever hitting the ball out of the infield. Senior first baseman Chris Cullen was hit by a pitch and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt Junior shortstop Nick Neville then reached on a bunt single, and senior center fielder TJ Hopkins laced a groundout to drive Cullen home.

Beyond that, though, the Gamecocks struggled to touch Kentucky ace Zack Thompson, considered one of the best pitching prospects in the country. Neville’s bunt single was the only hit USC managed through the first five innings.

“He locates well, and I’d say that’s probably his biggest deal,” Olson said of Thompson.

UK, meanwhile, edged back ahead in the fourth, as Lloyd was pulled after a leadoff walk. A single and wild pitch put runners on second and third, and Kentucky capitalized with an RBI groundout. A throwing error set up a Wildcat safety squeeze bunt in the next at-bat that scored another.

Over the next two innings, Kentucky padded its advantage. In the fifth, Harley walked the leadoff man and surrendered a bunt single and double to plate one run. In the sixth, a hit batter, sacrifice bunt, infield single, groundout and single scored two more.

Those runs gave Thompson some breathing room in the sixth, when Hopkins led off with a single to left field and scored when senior third baseman Jacob Olson roped a double to the corner with two outs.

“Considering as much as he’s dominated all year, he had eight strikeouts in six innings,” Kingston said of his team’s performance against Thompson. “So compared to how he’s pitched against most of the teams in the SEC, we had two earned runs in six innings, that’s actually a little bit better than average against him.”

Over the final three innings, however, Kentucky’s bullpen did not surrender a hit to secure the victory.

Injury report: Sophomore second baseman Noah Campbell missed Sunday’s game with a strained hip flexor and remains day-to-day moving forward, Kingston said. Junior shortstop George Callil remains in concussion protocol and cannot play for five days after he does clear it.

Next: South Carolina plays its final midweek game of the season on Tuesday against USC Upstate, before finishing its regular season slate at Mississippi State starting Thursday.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.