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Gamecocks Win Game One of Regionals

College baseball regional weekend is one of the single best weekends in sports all year long; rivaled only by the opening weekend of March Madness. All the excitement of postseason baseball, which regardless of the level of the game, is always the best for fans and players alike, is felt from the moment you arrive in the parking lot.

 

At NC State’s Doak Field on Friday afternoon, that was personified in the buzz of fans fervently talking about what they expect and the things that drive them up a wall about their favorite teams as they make the long uphill trek from the parking garage to the ballpark. It was felt in the energy in the crowd as they battled the blazing sun over their heads and they took their seats. It was on display with the teams as they did their various pregame rituals while their respective fight songs rang over the PA system.

 

No doubt, with the unexpected run to the semifinals in the SEC tournament where the Gamecocks hung in with the defending national champion LSU twice while also defeating Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky behind the strength of the team (when they are on it) – their offense, most South Carolina fans expected their team to continue that trend. Afterall, the Raleigh regional was fraught with favorable matchups for the incredibly beleaguered Gamecock pitching. NC State, James Madison, and Bryant are all teams that have not thrived on pitching throughout the season. In short, this regional could be won by any of these teams so long as they were hot at the right time. By their run in Hoover, it was hard to deny the Gamecocks might have been just that.

 

The fervor of the fans was very quickly dampened a bit when James Madison took their first lead of the game in the top of the 1st behind the first instance of the shoddy defense that has both characterized and plagued South Carolina all season. JMU Center Fielder Fenwick Tremble singled with 1 out, followed by a bunt single to 3rd with a throwing error on Talmadge LeCroy – his first of 2 significant blunders. The error led to an unearned run coming home when the next man up grounded to 3rd. Eli Jones would get through the inning with no further damage, inducing a fly ball to left to get out of it.

 

That 1-0 lead would hold steady for the Dukes until the bottom of the third, thanks in part to a couple of double plays that had fans in the seats below the pressbox feeling flustered. After a 1 out double from Ethan Petry and a walk to Blake Jackson in the bottom of the 1st, Cole Messina rolled into a 4-6-3 twin killing. Kennedy Jones reached on a single in the home half of the 2nd with 1 away only to have the chances of a rally end on a Dalton Reeves 3-6-3 double play.

 

South Carolina’s offense finally gave the crowd something to cheer about as they broke the goose egg in the bottom of the 3rd when Talmadge LeCroy led off with a single, got to 3rd on a sac bunt and back to back hit batsmen (which loaded the bases), and came around to score on an RBI groundout to 2nd from Blake Jackson.

 

Unfortunately for the garnet faithful behind the 1st base dugout, that inning that had such promise ended in the same way the previous 2 did. Cole Messina was intentionally walked – something you’d expect when he had such a hot run in Hoover – this being the first of 2 free passes he was given. Parker Noland later grounded into a fielders choice at 2nd, going the short route to get Messina to end an inning that had great potential with just the 1 run.

 

The Gamecock faithful had even less enthusiasm the ensuing half inning after a leadoff walk and a bunt single ended Eli Jones’ day. He gave way to Ty Good, who for the first couple hitters he faced, things were anything but. Following a double steal on his first pitch, the next 2 hitters singled and doubled back to back  to give the Dukes a 4-1 lead. He got the next 2 to limit the damage, but the Gamecock bats would need to answer in a big way – a phrase that could perhaps adequately be used to sum up the way this game played out.

 

In the fifth inning, Will Tippett led off with a no doubt solo home run to left to cut the Dukes’ lead down to 2. Austin Brinling followed with a single, and with 1 out, Blake Jackson launched a high line shot that sailed beyond the right field fence in the corner to tie the game, awakening the crowd once again. Following Jackson’s homer, James Madison set out to quell the noise once again as they made the gutsy call to bring their ace in to put out the fire. He got Parker Noland swinging on three pitches and used his filthy pickoff move to erase Cole Messina to end the inning.

 

The tie was short-lived as once again the Dukes were gifted the lead on an error on Talmadge LeCroy, coming on a ground ball that caromed off of Ty Good and took a high hop right to Tal. It was a very low chance they would have gotten the runner at 1st , but rather than eat it, he drew a collective groan from the Carolina cheering section by throwing it away to 1st. Brendan O’Donnell followed with an RBI single to center to make it 5-4. From there, Chris Veach was brought in to try and control the fire.

 

Veach ended up surrendering 2 more runs, both unearned thanks to the LeCroy error, on a 2 out double to the right field corner from Fenwick Trimble, upping the lead to 7-4 before a chorus of “Let’s go Dukes!” from the folks stationed along the 3rd base side of the stands.

 

The bottom of the frame started off with some promise for the Gamecocks as Kennedy Jones  homered off the batters eye to cut the deficit to 2. Dalton Reeves drew a walk to follow it, but the inning turned south quickly as he became the 2nd pickoff victim for JMU’s Donovan Burke, who proceeded to get LeCroy and Tippett swinging to send the game to the 7th with his team up 7-5.

 

Luckily for South Carolina, Chris Veach did a phenomenal job of keeping James Madison at bay and giving his squad a chance to work their way back into the game.

 

“I thought it was an ‘ok’ outing. I had given up some ‘duck hits’. But other than that I threw well. I kept us in the game and we just kept slowly creeping back and finally struck with the homer. Then we had a simple sac fly to win the game. That’s a testament to our team – fighting it out until the end”, said Veach.

 

Chris’ valiant effort on the bump paid off handsomely in the bottom of the 9th.

 

After South Carolina’s offense grounded into it’s 4th double kill of the game, Blake Jackson was hit by a 2 strike pitch to extend the game for Cole Messina, who up to that point had not been pitched to but twice all game, drawing a walk and grounding into a double play in those 2 plate appearances. In this moment, the Dukes once again faced a crucial decision – throw up a 4 or pitch to him and hope that he makes the last out? They opted for the latter, and it ended up being possibly the biggest moment of the season for South Carolina this season yet.

On the first pitch he saw, Messina launched one high and deep to left. It was almost as if time stood still for the moments that ball took to carry beyond the left field fence. The South Carolina faithful instantly rose to their feet, watching with their breaths withheld just knowing that he had done it again. The game was tied at 7 as the Garnet and black clad folks erupted louder than the ballpark had been all game long, for a moment making it feel as if they were back in the friendly confines of Founders Park.

 

“I just felt like I had to stay in the moment and be ready to hit no matter what. I am not a fortune teller. I can’t pick and choose when they walk me. I had to stay locked in and focused. When the moment came, I took a good swing”, said Messina of the clutch homer following back to back plate appearances where he didn’t see a pitch.

 

“Sometimes managers play the odds. Home runs are unlikely. There is a 10 percent chance He {Messina} hits a homer there. Sometimes a guy is so hot you have to be careful. We have had that with Charlie Condon and Jac Caglianone this year. There are a lot of variables that go into the decision and you don’t have a crystal ball. He makes a pitch in a slightly different spot and it might be a pop up of a groundout. I’m just glad Cole Messina is so locked in right now”, said Mark Kingston.

 

The joy and hopefulness that came with Messina’s blast was short-lived, with Parker Noland sending the game to extra innings on a grounder to 2nd, soon to be restored as Chris Veach worked 3 up 3 down top of the 10th.

 

Kennedy Jones led off with a walk. With 1 out, Talmadge LeCroy tried to play the small ball game and laid down a sac bunt that went to the mound. It was fielded by the pitcher, but his throw to 1st was well off target, putting both Jones and LeCroy in scoring position. That led to a storybook moment for the unlikeliest of heroes – Will Tippett.

 

He took a 2-0 fastball high and deep to center. It wasn’t deep enough to clear the yard, but it got the job done with ease as Dylan Brewer, who was pinch running for Kennedy Jones, tagged and scored the winning run.

 

“It feels good. I was just trying to do anything to win. I’m not Cole Messina. He goes up there and it seems he hits a home run every at bat. I am just trying to do my best to help the team win. He {Coach Kingston} told me to get my hacks off. They wanted me to have an at bat and take my swings. I was looking for a fastball I could lift high and deep and got the job done”, said Tippett of the walkoff.

 

“We are at our best when everyone is playing together, pulling for one another, has each other’s back, picking each other up. It was really good to see us stay together for 9 innings and not lose focus there in the 9th, and we came out with a win”. That quote from Cole Messina accurately describes how this team has come together over the last 2 weeks to get where they are and is ultimately how they will have to win going forward – a sentiment shared by Head Coach Mark Kingston.

 

“That was probably one of those games for the ages. I don’t know how many games look like they will probably not go your way and you just find a way. Credit to the guys in our dugout. James Madison is a heck of a team with a really good offense that creates a lot of problems for a defense and pitching staff. It’s not an easy thing to accept if you’re James Madison. I thought they played their tails off all day and I am just glad we found a way to come out on top at the end.”

 

South Carolina will now set their sights on staying in the winners bracket as they will take on the winner of Friday night’s game between NC State and Bryant tomorrow evening.

 

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