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Upstate Baseball Drops Opening Series to Kentucky

For the last 7 months, the narrative around the Big South Conference in regards to Baseball has been that there has been a changing of the guard.

 

For the last few years, the conference was a 2 team race between USC Upstate and Campbell, with the Spartans having played the proverbial ‘second fiddle’. Last season, the Spartans were a win away from sweeping the Camels to claim the regular season conference title for the first time. In the conference tournament, it came down to Upstate needing 2 wins over Campbell to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time. Unfortunately, the Camels went on to win the title and go to regionals, where they lost out in the final in Columbia to South Carolina. But, now, the Camels are no longer a part of Upstate’s story. 

 

The Camels departed for the Colonial Athletic Association, which led to the narrative changing. Over the course of the offseason, the talk was that USC Upstate would easily be the new class of the Big South. 

 

Returning a roster containing 7 preseason all-Big South selections, as well as six transfers to help bolster their depth, Upstate did seem to be on track to make waves this season. But, with any team, when you are told all offseason just how good you are going to be, you have to avoid letting that go to your head – and there is nothing that will humble you more quickly than opening the season against a top 25-ranked opponent out of the SEC. Taking it a step further – playing a non-conference schedule that features South Carolina, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, the Citadel, UNC Greensboro, Western Carolina, and Pennsylvania. 

 

USC Upstate would face one of those 2 scenarios as they opened the 2024 campaign at Harley Park with a 3-game set against the Kentucky Wildcats starting this past Friday in hopes of being able to win at least 1, which they are very capable of. Unfortunately, it resulted in a sweep by the Wildcats, but not without its positives to build on.  

 

Game one of the series resulted in the Wildcats showcasing their speed and ability to hang crooked numbers very quickly. UK jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the 2nd inning. Upstate battled back with a pair of runs in the bottom half of the frame. The game held at 4-2 until Kentucky broke it open in the top of the 5th via yet another 4 spot to go up 8-2. Each squad would score 3 more runs, making it 11-5 heading to the bottom of the 9th. Following a Jace Rinehart double, Troy Hamilton cranked his first home run of the season to cut the lead to 11-7, which would go on to be the final. 

 

Aside from the late fight, the biggest positives were the first home run as a Spartan for transfer redshirt junior right fielder Koby Kropf in the bottom of the 7th – a solo shot that just cleared the fence in right center field, which at the time cut the deficit to 9-5. Kropf went 1 for 3 with the homer and a pair of walks. David Pereira led the way going 3 for 4 with 3 RBIs on a double on a 2 run single in the 2nd and a double in the 6th. But it was the freshman infielder Vance Sheahan’s first college start that was perhaps the biggest bright spot, going 3 for 4 with an RBI. 

 

Game two of the series featured a lot less offense. USC Upstate sent Mathieu Curtis to the mound, who went 4 innings. He surrendered three runs in his start, but one of the 2 unfortunate storylines from the game was that none of them were earned thanks to 4 Spartan errors. 

 

The other decisive factor in the game was that Upstate simply could not score. The Spartans had a strong chance in back to back innings to do some damage, but with the bases loaded and 2 out in the 5th, Daniel Gernon struck out swinging to leave them on. Upstate had 2 on in both the 6th and 7th with 2 out and still could not break through. In total, USCU stranded 10 runners in the game, and ultimately were shut out 3-0. 

 

The bright spot from game 2? Closer Jake Cubbler, who was one of the 7 selected to the preseason all Big South team, entered in the 5th inning and went the remainder of the way, not only shutting the Wildcats down, but striking out a career-high 8 batters along the way. 

 

The series finale was a game that got away fairly quickly from the Spartans as Kentucky jumped out to an 8-0 lead before the Spartans finally cracked the goose egg after having been shut out for 14 innings on a no-doubt 2 run shot out of left by Grant Sherrod in the bottom of the 6th – his first home run of the season. 

 

USC Upstate would score just 1 more run in the contest on a solo blast from Troy Hamilton in the bottom of the 8th. That, plus his leadoff triple in the bottom of the 4th made him the offensive leader for the game, going 2 for 3 with 2 runs scored and a walk as the Spartans were swept with a 9-3 Kentucky victory. 

 

“We certainly had opportunities in every ballgame to get back in with one swing, but the situational hitting we did not do put us in a situation behind the 8 ball where we needed a homer. We needed to string the bats along, have competitive at bats, and keep the line moving. We have some pop and guys capable of hitting homers. But that can’t be our only recipe for scoring. That’s where the situational hitting we need to do comes in. We have a lot of tests on our schedule and this was the first. We didn’t fare well, but we are gonna have other tests. Just like in academics, when the first test doesn’t go well, you have to bounce back. One of the most disappointing things about it is that we are a veteran team and we did some things out of character. It goes to show that opening day/weekend jitters get you whether you’re 23 or 18”, said Upstate Head Coach Mike McGuire after the series. 

 

The Spartans will have a good chance to use the “wake up call” they got this weekend to break into the win column this week as they play 4 more at home against four different opponents, starting with Western Carolina this Wednesday with a 3:00 first pitch. After that, they will host the One Spartanburg Inc Classic over the weekend, featuring Quinnipiac. Canisius, and St Joseph’s. The Spartans will play at 3:00 Friday (vs Quinnipiac), 2:00 Saturday (vs Canisius), and 1:00 Sunday (vs Saint Joseph’s).



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