South Carolina held its own on Saturday afternoon at North Carolina, the NCAA tournament’s top overall season. That had to be encouraging for coach Chad Holbrook and the Gamecocks. But they missed too many opportunities and lost 6-5 in their super regional opener because Skye Bolt drove in a run with a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth inning.
So USC’s season is on the line Sunday, in Game 2 of this highly anticipated border matchup of college baseball powers.
USC’s loss Saturday was its first NCAA tournament defeat outside of the College World Series since 2009, when it lost in a regional at East Carolina. From the start of the 2010 tournament until Saturday, USC was 18-0 in regionals and super regionals — 5-0 in those rounds from 2010-12 and 3-0 in this year’s regional. All of those rounds were held in Columbia except the 2010 super regional in Myrtle Beach.
USC is now 33-5 in the NCAA tournament since 2010 — one loss in the 2010 College World Series (Oklahoma), three last year in Omaha (Arkansas and Arizona twice) and Saturday’s defeat at the hands of North Carolina.
USC’s offense did its part early Saturday, knocking Kent Emanuel out of the game after 2 1/3 innings – the second-shortest start of the junior’s career and the shortest since he lasted 1 1/3 innings at North Carolina State as a freshman. Emanuel had averaged 7 2/3 innings per start entering Saturday, with five complete games.
But North Carolina refused to go away and now USC has to face Hobbs Johnson (2.09 ERA, 71 strikeouts, 46 walks) in Sunday’s game.
“As good as (the Tar Heels’) pitching has been all year, the thing that has stood out to me about their team is their offensive approach, their willingness to never give in, their incredible job they do with two strikes,” Holbrook said. “We had opportunities to win it, and we didn’t capitalize on those opportunities. I’m proud of my guys for the way that they came to the park to play. They played as hard as they possibly could. They just didn’t play as well as they possibly could. You have to play extremely well to beat North Carolina.
“We did what we could do against a great pitching staff. We couldn’t come up with the big hit or big ground-out to get a run across. Difference in the game. You’ve got to capitalize on your opportunities against this team. We had our opportunities. But we didn’t capitalize on them. I thought we had some pretty good at-bats. We battled and competed, (did) all we could do offensively at the plate. That’s all I could ask from them. We didn’t execute some things.”
“You’re not going to win against North Carolina 2-1 or 3-2. They’re going to put pressure on you. They’re going to score some runs. Every opportunity you get to score yourself is magnified if you don’t execute. You’ll always look back against a great team if you weren’t able to win and say, ‘I wish I had this at-bat back.’ We had our cracks, and we didn’t capitalize on them. I hope we can get a few cracks tomorrow. There’s no guarantee you get opportunities against those guys.”
USC starter Nolan Belcher lasted just five innings on Saturday. He allowed eight hits and five runs, though two were unearned because of errors.
“It’s my job to pitch through errors,” said Belcher. “I’m very disappointed with the way I threw. I’ve got to be able to go deeper in the game.”
This could have been Belcher’s final appearance in a USC uniform. He had a remarkable senior season and entered Saturday with a 2.25 ERA, 94 strikeouts and 15 walks. He was averaging exactly seven innings per start. Saturday was the shortest start of his season and just the third time in 17 starts that he failed to last six innings. He went 5 2/3 at LSU and 5 2/3 in his first start of the year, against Liberty.
With Jordan Montgomery on the mound Sunday, can the Gamecocks extend their season and give Belcher a chance at a better curtain call?
“I have no worries that we’ll be ready to go tomorrow,” said first baseman LB Dantzler.