Gamecocks Advance to Regional Final
After a statement 19-1 win over Central Connecticut State last night, many Gamecock fans probably went 1 of two directions with their feelings. Either they suddenly felt this team was “back” to what it was when they swept Florida midway through the season, or they were going with the old “I hope they saved some runs for the rest of the weekend” cliche.
Regardless of which side you leaned towards, there were some things about Saturday night’s winners bracket game against NC State that were so obvious that they cannot be ignored.
It was of utter importance to try and get to 2-0. Doing so would ensure the Gamecocks would have the “easiest” pathway to super regionals, needing to just win 1 in the regional final to move on. It was also just as important that Jack Mahoney go as deep as he could to continue to save Will Sanders and Matthew Becker for Sunday and (though we hope not), Monday.
Mark Kingston’s Gamecocks would face a tough trial to try and make all that happen.
The Wolfpack sent Matt Willadsen to the mound, who in 76 and a third innings prior to Saturday night, had struck out 79 with just 26 walks. He also surrendered just 30 earned runs. As if Willadsen wasn’t a tough enough cookie, the Gamecocks also had the added pressure of not batting last if needed in this game, as they were the visitors, even in their home ballpark.
From the early going, the tone was set – this game would be the polar opposite of last night, to channel my inner Captain Obvious again.
The Gamecocks mustered just 1 base runner through the first 2 innings – a 1 out walk to Braylen Wimmer in the 1st inning. They struck out 4 times.
On the flipside, the game almost took a negative turn for Jack Mahoney early on after he got the first 2 hitters he faced on a grounder to 2nd and a strikeout. The third man singled to 2nd. Braswell did a great job of fielding it deep behind the bag, but the throw to 1st pulled Gavin Casas off. The next man up blooped a “cheap” double just over Casas’ head into shallow right, which had Ethan Petry not hustled to, could have spelled disaster. Instead, Petry got to it quickly and cut it off, throwing home to hold the lead runner at 3rd. A can of corn to Tippett in center ended the inning, getting Mahoney out unscathed.
“When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t have pitched when I woke up this morning. The adrenaline shot up as soon as I got up. I got the 1st 2 guys, got a dink hit and roll over Gavin’s head. I don’t think people realize how big of a play that was by Petry. People see it and think ‘Oh, that was a baseball play’, but it changed the whole complexion of the game. On the fly ball to center, Tip (Will Tippett) makes a great play – he has played all over the place for us and he has done whatever we ask him to do. Shout out to that man – he saved my butt”, said Mahoney.
That was not the only game changing play in this battle.
The Gamecocks finally got some offense going in the 3rd inning after Will McGillis drew a walk. Braylen Wimmer followed it with a big 2 run homer into the bullpen that broke the scoreless tie.
“We talk about it all the time. Who’s gonna be the first man through the door? Who’s gonna breach the door and show the rest of the guys the way through. He was the guy tonight. McGillis had a great AB to get on with 2 out and then Wimmer had the big blow. That took a little bit of the tension out of the dugout and we said ‘Hey, this could be our day again’”, said Kingston.
Aside from the defense and pitching, there was 1 inning that really sealed the fate of this game.
In the 4th, the Gamecocks once again made a huge 2 out rally. Braylen Wimmer got it started with a walk. Ethan Petry, Cole Messina, and Talmadge LeCroy would also go on to draw walks, with Tal’s forcing in a run. Then, Gavin Casas came to the dish with the bases loaded and a chance to really put this game out of reach.
Casas lined a single to right to score 2, extending the Gamecocks’ lead to 5-0. Michael Braswell added a bloop single to center to make it 6-0, capping the rally where 9 men went to the plate and 4 scored.
“You know the guy is struggling a bit, so you are keyholing him to get that one pitch. A big problem for me this year so far has been getting too big and trying to hit that home run. But, I simplified it and just tried to put the ball in play. Good things happen when you put the ball in play”, said Casas of his approach in that at bat.
Ultimately, Jack Mahoney grinded his way through 6 innings, giving up 3 earned runs on 7 hits with no walks and 6 strikeouts, earning him his 7th win of the season. The Gamecock bullpen was also effective and relatively efficient for the 2nd straight night.
Eli Jones entered in the 7th inning and worked 2 and a third scoreless despite 5 hits. Chris Veach would go on to earn the save in 2 thirds of an inning of work.
Perhaps the most impressive part is that the 3 combined did not allow a single walk in the contest, which was another key factor in South Carolina prevailing.
“I saw a great competitor out there. I saw what Jack has been for the last part of the season for us. He’s been our most consistent guy and he’s been dominant. The guys love playing behind him as you can see with the kind of defense he gets. He had 1 inning that got away from him a little bit, but he was really good”, said Kingston of Mahoney’s effort.
South Carolina came out on top 6-3 in the end, led by Gavin Casas and Braylen Wimmer, who both logged 2 RBIs on a combined 3 for 8 night. Will McGills was solid once again, going 2 for 4 with a double, while Michael Braswell and Talmadge LeCroy both tabbed an RBI a piece.
“It was one heck of a ballgame between 2 really good teams. Great night, great crowd. Just a great night of baseball in Columbia. I will give you a quick analogy for what it feels like to coaches in the dugout. If you’ve ever been on a plane with heavy turbulence, you say ‘Please just land the dang plane.’ That’s what it feels like. I am really proud of these guys. We still gotta win another one tomorrow. Whoever we play tomorrow will be a good ball club. But, tonight was a really good win for us”, said Kingston in his opening remarks – which could not be a more accurate description.
The Gamecocks once again have shown that they are more competitive now that they are healthy. Maybe not fully back to where they were a month or so ago, but they are back to where they are fun to watch and they are having fun.
South Carolina will look to punch their ticket to Super Regionals Sunday night as they take on the winner of the final elimination game between Campbell and NC State, which is set to start at noon.