Before Luke Berryhill sent a baseball into orbit, before not one but two lazy flyballs were lost in the sun, before Parker Coyne somehow held on to send South Carolina baseball to the SEC tournament on Saturday, everything nearly fell apart before it began for South Carolina against No. 5 Mississippi State.
Freshman Brett Kerry, one of the team’s top arms but relatively untested as a starter, got the ball to begin the regular season finale on the road in a must-win situation. After two quick outs in the first inning, things went sideways.
First, a single to right field. Then, a wild pitch. Then a walk on a 3-2 count. Then another walk. Suddenly the bases were loaded and right fielder Rowdey Jordan slashed a line drive down the left field line. The crowd at Dudy-Noble Field started to cheer, anticipating at least a run, maybe two, possibly three if it took an odd bounce once in foul territory.
“I was just saying to myself, ‘That’s foul, that’s foul, that’s foul,’” Kerry said. “I was just hoping it just got right on the outside line right there. ... I was blowing it a little maybe too.”
Over in left field, the man who would be responsible for chasing the ball down, sophomore Andrew Eyster, was not so optimistic.
“I thought that was fair, absolutely,” Eyster said.
Kerry was right — the ball curved at the last moment and dropped just a few inches on the wrong side of the white line. The Gamecocks breathed a sigh of relief, and Kerry proceeded to get an easy flyout and throw 6 1/3 innings, earning perhaps the most important win of the year for South Carolina.
“It’s a game of inches. They say it all the time, and that lefty hit it right down the line, it could have really opened up that game for them,” coach Mark Kingston said. “They’re up 3-1 at that point if that ball’s a couple inches to the right. Luckily for us it wasn’t.”
Luck isn’t something this year’s Gamecocks have had much of, at least from a positive standpoint — what with a devastating rash of injuries to the pitching staff and a frustrating conference season where the Gamecocks felt they were putting in all the effort, only to continually fall just short of putting it all together.
But for one day at least, in a hostile environment with the season on the line, things went just right for South Carolina.
“We finally had some breaks go our way, and even that game, it felt like, shoot, we had to hold on for dear life. But we did,” Kingston said.
Of course, luck doesn’t explain it all — foul ball or not, Kerry had faith in his own ability to escape the jam.
“Walking two guys and having the bases loaded with two outs was obviously nerve wracking, but I have confidence in myself. I felt like I could get this guy out, so it was just a matter of doing it,” Kerry said.
And Kerry’s confidence made his performance all the more impressive to his teammates, especially Berryhill at catcher.
“That was massive guts. That was the No. 5 team in the country, going down and shoving it down their throat. Guy did not hold back. He just went right at everybody and made a lot of good pitches today,” the sophomore said.
While it’s obviously impossible to say what might have happened had that first-inning liner dropped fair, for Berryhill, the fact that Kerry kept Mississippi State in check was crucial to South Carolina’s offensive explosion later in the game. After seeing early leads disintegrate in the series’ first two games, there was pressure to come from behind once Kerry took control.
“It makes our job incredibly easy, that we can just worry about hitting instead of having to try to catch up with the other team. Playing with a little bit of a lead and some confidence with our pitcher, it just makes everything easier,” Berryhill said.
TUESDAY, MAY 21 — FIRST ROUND (SINGLE ELIMINATION)
Game 1 — No. 6 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Florida, 10:30 a.m., SEC Network
Game 2 — No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Missouri, 2 p.m., SEC Network
Game 3 — No. 8 Auburn vs. No. 9 Tennessee, 5:30 p.m., SEC Network
Game 4 — No. 5 LSU vs. No. 12 South Carolina, 9 p.m., SEC Network
WEDNESDAY, MAY 22 — SECOND ROUND (DOUBLE ELIMINATION)
Game 5 — No. 3 Georgia vs. Game 1 winner, 10:30 a.m., SEC Network
Game 6 — No. 2 Arkansas vs. Game 2 winner, 2 p.m., SEC Network
Game 7 —No. 1 Vanderbilt vs. Game 3 winner, 5:30 p.m., SEC Network
Game 8 — No. 4 Mississippi State vs. Game 4 winner, 9 p.m., SEC Network