Hobbs Johnson still looked stunned. He had just allowed five runs and five hits in 1 2/3 innings – the worst outing of the North Carolina junior’s career. He is an elite pitcher, but looked like anything but in Sunday’s 8-0 loss to South Carolina, which set up Monday’s winner-take-all Game 3 in this NCAA tournament super regional.
In his entire career (44 appearances and 22 starts before Sunday), Johnson had allowed more than two earned runs just once – a three spot last month against Virginia. He had a 1.56 ERA last season and 2.09 this season. And USC made him look like a meat-baller.
“It was just terrible,” Johnson said. “Not locating, balls up in the zone. I didn’t locate in and out like I needed to. That’s probably the hardest I’ve ever been hit in my career.”
USC hung five on him in the second, and away the Gamecocks went. Now, they will try to buck some historical trends and win for the second time in two days, after dropping Game 1 of this super regional. Before that, USC was 18-0 in regionals and super regionals since 2010.
USC is 1-4 all-time in super regional Game 3s, falling to Louisiana-Lafayette in 2000, at Stanford in 2001, at Georgia in 2006 and at North Carolina in 2007. USC beat Miami in Columbia in 2002, with a thrilling ninth-inning comeback. Down 4-1 entering the inning, USC scored five in the top of the ninth to win 6-4.
This round marks the fifth time ever that USC has dropped the opening game of a regional or super regional. It happened in 1977 (South Alabama), 1983 (James Madison), 2001 (Stanford) and 2007 (North Carolina). Remember, super regionals didn’t exist before 1999. The only one of those four rounds that USC advanced out of was the 1977 regional in Columbia. The Gamecocks won four games in three days for their second College World Series appearance.
But did USC snatch the momentum away with Sunday’s win?
“No, I don’t think so,” said North Carolina designated hitter Landon Lassiter. “That’s why you play three (games).”
On the flip side, USC coach Chad Holbrook doesn’t want his team to get too high after Sunday’s big win. It was a season-saver, he knows, not a season-maker.
Said Holbrook: “I told the guys after the game, ‘They’re not going to crown us. They’re not giving us a trophy today. We won one game. Big deal.’”
But he understands that, at least for Sunday, USC’s victory was the biggest of deals in this, his first season as the Gamecocks’ coach.
Some more notes from Game 2 …
** Jordan Montgomery was excellent again in his fourth career NCAA tournament start – a complete game four-hitter. He has now allowed just 15 hits in 30 2/3 career innings in the tournament and has a 0.59 career tournament ERA.
“Jordan was incredible,” Holbrook said. “To shut out a team like North Carolina, that’s an awfully hard task to do. Usually, you make three errors against a team like North Carolina, they’re going to make you pay. But Jordan was just too good today. I’ve seen him do that before, so I can’t sit up here and say I’m surprised. He was in total control today. That’s a start and an outing he’ll never forget.
“That was the big thing, that we didn’t have to get (Adam Westmoreland) and Tyler Webb hot today (both are seniors). We’ll probably be quicker to go to those guys tomorrow. Obviously, we’re going to give them the ball pretty quick tomorrow. That’s one of the reasons we wanted Jordan to finish the game today.
“He’s pitched some incredible games. I’ve seen him pitch in high school and he threw about 51 pitches and the game was over. He can pitch. He doesn’t wow you with stuff. His velocity is getting better as he gets stronger. I just feel good every time that he’s in the game, that he’s going to give us a chance to win.”
Freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop gets the Game 3 start, opposite sophomore righty Benton Moss, with North Carolina as the home team because it won a coin flip.
“We’re going to have everybody ready tomorrow (in the bullpen),” Holbrook said. “We’re going to go to some veteran guys tomorrow if Jack gets in trouble.”
** USC had one steal in the five-run second inning and four in the fifth, when the Gamecocks added two runs to go up 8-0. The fifth inning included a double steal called by Holbrook.
“We were lucky enough to get a lead and we just wanted to try to keep scoring,” Holbrook said. “I wasn’t comfortable sitting there in the seventh or eighth inning up 8-0. I’ve seen them come back before. I guess they have kind made a living off that. In that 7-2 game (against Clemson in the ACC tournament) everybody thought the game was over, and they tie it up with five in the ninth and win the game. I’m not going to feel comfortable with any lead. We had some fast guys out there that could run the bases, so we just turned them loose. I felt a little bit better with the fact that we were up 8-0 and not five.”
** First baseman Kyle Martin, who played sparingly before last weekend’s regional and was making his just 17th start on Sunday, had a big walk in the second inning, to keep USC going. (Martin was the regional most valuable player.)
“Kyle has a good plate approach,” Holbrook said. “He usually doesn’t chase pitches out of the strike zone. He doesn’t get too rattled when he gets two strikes. That walk helped us out in that inning. I kind of look not very intelligent sitting up here having not played him much this year. He’s one of the main reasons we’re still alive today.”
** Freshman second baseman Max Schrock, playing in his hometown, had two errors Sunday after having one in Game 1. But his lead-off double in the second inning was enormous.
“Schrock is a really good player,” Holbrook said, before delivering a few wise cracks. “He’s tight as a banjo string right now for some reason. I’m going to have to put Doc (Ronald) Kasper (and Schrock) in a little room together tonight, our sports psychologist. (Kasper) has got to earn his keep in some way, shape or form. It sounds like today might be a good day for Doc, because he’s done nothing but steal meal money this whole trip. We’ve got to get Doc to work tonight. Max is a good player. He’ll be fine. He’s played great defense all year. To his credit, it’s hot out there, the field is hard, balls aren’t bouncing. It’s tough. He’ll be fine.”
Shortstop Joey Pankake, who has struggled defensively at times in his first two seasons, offered Schrock some words of encouragement on the field.
“I told him I’ve had a lot of games like that,” Pankake said.
Holbrook chimed in: “He wouldn’t be lying either.”
Everybody guffawed in the postgame interview room.
“I told him that happens, that’s part of the game,” Pankake continued. “You’ve just got to bounce back. I’ve done it my whole career.”
Pankake has 16 errors this season, including one on Sunday, and had 17 last season. Schrock had six errors this season before the super regional and had been one of USC’s best defensive players.