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Gamecocks Shutout By Dukes; Eliminated in Raleigh

Question marks. Heavy pressure. Nothing unfamiliar during Mark Kingston’s tenure as the Head Coach at South Carolina. With James Madison being a team that doesn’t hesitate to run any chance they get, it was a given that one of the questions had an immediate answer.. Cole Messina, who played a fantastic defensive game at first base in the wake of Ethan Petry’s injury, would have to go back to catcher.

 

That created another question. Who’s on first? Or rather.. Who’s at first. Dylan Brewer got a start in Saturday night’s 6-4 loss to NC State, and made the most of it, notching his first two homer game since the series with Longwood early in the season. For Sunday’s elimination game with James Madison, he took reps pregame at first, a position he had started at just 5 times before in his collegiate career, all of which came while he was playing for Monte Lee at Clemson. One would have to figure that after a hot night at the plate and in a game where offense would be a key to victory, Kingston would put him in the order any way he could. The answer? To put him at first base.

 

The next question was who would start on the mound for Mark Kingston’s much-beleaguered squad. Saturday night, despite surrendering three home runs to NC State, Garrett Gainey grinded his way through 6 innings – one of the longest starts for a Gamecock pitcher in the last few weeks. That was enough to save a few arms – two of which were capable of a start in Dylan Eskew and Tyler Pitzer. Eskew would end up being entrusted to try and keep the Dukes contained.

 

Perhaps the hottest burning of questions coming into this one was whether or not Ethan Petry would be able to play in any capacity. Last night, Mark Kingston noted that Ethan would be re-evaluated Sunday morning. But the vibe being given was not one that hinted at anything hopeful. However, in similar fashion to Saturday night, the pregame warmup speculation began to run amok when he was spotted with no splint on his pinky and just a wrap on his hand. Later, the reporting from the pressbox intensified as he was spotted taking some dry hacks and playing some soft toss catch with Austin Brinling.

 

The anxiety and anticipation finally saw release when the lineup card confirmed what was the best-case scenario for the Gamecocks. Petry would play, but only as the Designated Hitter.

 

“I woke up this morning and the swelling was down and I said ‘let’s just play and try it out. It worked out for me and I played through a lot of pain, but it is what it is”, said Petry of his injury.

 

 

The good news did little to quell the nerves of the Gamecock fans in Raleigh. The die-hards, who definitely do remember the last time Carolina won a pennant, no doubt clinged to those fond memories as they sat as quiet as a dark church sanctuary behind the third base dugout, prayerful that their premonitions of an anticlimactic exit from the tournament didn’t come to fruition.

 

South Carolina entered the day under the intense stress of knowing they needed to win 3 games in 2 days – twice on Sunday alone just to force a winner take all game 7 on Monday. Their quest to avoid elimination began with a crisp feel to the air under an overcast sky at Dail Park. As pleasant as the weather was (and had been all weekend), the nerve wrack and pressure was turned up another level after the Gamecocks stranded a pair in the top of the 1st. The pressure reached a boiling point in the bottom half when James Madison’s Mike Mancini lifted a 2 strike pitch out of right field for a solo home run, breaking a homerless streak of 4 games dating back to the Sun Belt Tournament for the Dukes.

 

The story for South Carolina from there was the performance from Dylan Eskew. The homer ended up being his lone mistake in 5 and a third innings. His final line ended up being 4 hits, 2 walks, and an earned run.

 

“I felt good. I tried to give the team everything I had. I knew our backs were against the wall with having to win three straight, so I told coach Matt {Williams} and King{ston} that I’d give it my all. And I feel like I did that”, said Eskew.

 

By every definition, he did exactly what he needed to and kept the team in position to be able to win this game. But, sadly the offense did not return the favor.

 

South Carolina’s bats struggled all weekend long with runners in scoring position, much in the same way they flailed about in the first month of the season before Kingston shuffled around the lineup in favor of more offense, sacrificing sound defense in the process. In this contest, those struggles were highlighted with the tying run in scoring position in the 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th innings. In each instance, the Gamecocks failed to push across a run.

 

In the third, with 2 on and 1 out, Cole Messina struck out swinging and Ethan Petry popped up to center to strand them. The fifth saw a controversial replay call where Will Tippett laid down a sac bunt and was pegged in the back by the throw to first. It went down as interference for the first out. Austin Brinling later singled to keep the inning alive only for Blake Jackson to strike out and Cole Messina to fly to center.

 

In the sixth, the Gamecocks had Ethan Petry on third with less than 2 outs, needing simply to put the ball in play to tie the game after a leadoff double and a wild pitch. Parker Noland ended up chopping a grounder to 1st unassisted while both Kennedy Jones and Dylan Brewer struck out swinging back to back to leave Ethan on. The potential for a rally in the 7th inning, which started with a leadoff walk to Talmadge LeCroy and a 1 out base on balls for Austin Brinling, ended in a 4-6-3 double play – the 9th twin killing that the Gamecocks hit into over the course of the regional – which made them an abysmal 0 for 20 with runners in scoring position over the course of the three games they played.

 

In the end, a lot of credit has to go to James Madison’s Donovan Burke, who pitched in all 3 of their games in the regional so far, tossing over 150 pitches in the process. Burke is JMU’s ace, and it definitely showed by his performance on Sunday afternoon alone. He earned the win in 6 and two-thirds innings of work, surrendering just 3 hits with 2 walks and 7 strikeouts, ultimately shutting South Carolina out for the Dukes’ first goose egg dealt since March 1st, 20222 against the Presbyterian College Blue Hose.

 

“He just threw a lot of strikes. We just did not do our job. We were trying to do too much on a guy that didn’t have a whole  lot of velocity. We overswung and when you do that, your swing gets slower”, said Ethan Petry of what it was like facing Burke.

 

“He’s a very ground ball-heavy pitcher. We are a power hitting team. It was a tough matchup. He threw a lot of strikes and walked 2 guys. You have to tip your cap because he made a lot of great pitches. Even when he walked a couple of batters, he induced a double play ball. He is a quality left hander that matched up well against us and he got us”, Kingston later added regarding Burke’s dominance.

 

Dylan Eskew eventually gave way to Tyler Pitzer in the bottom of the 6th, and he was just as stellar until the 8th inning when he made his lone mistake of the game with 1 out. Mike Mancini, who was charged with a throwing error in the top half of the frame, made up for it by cranking his 2nd long ball of the day – a solo homer out of the right field corner that many in garnet just had the sinking feeling would be the dagger in the season.

 

Turns out, they were correct as the squad went down in order in the top of the 9th to propel James Madison to the regional final on Sunday night.

 

“Dylan Eskew could not have done any better than he did today. He gave up a solo shot. Pitzer gave up a solo shot. Those guys pitched their tails off. That’s all you can ask. The reason we lost today is because we didn’t score runs. That guy had our number. It’s disappointing when that happens, but that’s baseball sometimes”, said Kingston of his immediate thoughts on the loss.

 

With the season in the rearview, there is little doubt the speculation about Kingston’s future and the venting of frustrations from the varying voices on social media and local sports radio/news outlets will reach a fever pitch this week. Knowing this as well as any of us, when put under the microscope by reporters in postgame, Kingston made sure to address the state of affairs and make his case the best he could.

 

“It was a good season. I don’t think it is a failure any time you make the NCAA Tournament out of the SEC. We obviously want to get better and go further in the postseason than we did. We want to be one of the last eight alive. So, that is disappointing and I am disappointed for those kids that gave it everything they had. I am disappointed that they had to suffer that frustration today. It was a good season, but we are always looking to have a great season”, said Kingston following the loss, asked about whether or not the 2024 campaign could be looked back on as a success.

 

“I think every program in the country wants to keep getting better. We are no different. The SEC is filled with teams who are dumping huge resources in. It is a matter of continuing to do everything we can to give this program what it needs to be successful. There are so many parts that are in great shape. But we need to keep getting better. That is the bottom line”, he later added when asked about the current state of the program.

 

South Carolina finished the 2024 baseball season with an overall record of 37-25, having ultimately fallen short of the goal of making it out of a regional. Now only time will tell if the 2024 season leads to a new beginning, whether that comes with new leadership or a new approach from the current leadership. Whatever that may be, the only certain thing in all this is that it will have repercussions and consequences. The question remains – will they be positive or negative?

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