South Carolina baseball scratched and clawed its way into making the SEC tournament.
And once they made it, the Gamecocks showed some fight early. But eventually, recurring issues — a depleted pitching staff, sloppy fielding and untimely hitting — overcame Carolina as it fell to LSU, 8-6, ending its tournament and its season Tuesday night.
Twelfth-seeded USC (28-28, 8-22) finishes the year with its worst conference record by both number of losses and winning percentage since joining the SEC in 1992. At .500, it is also the team’s lowest winning percentage overall since 1996.
“Obviously the results on the scoreboard weren’t what we wanted most of the year,” coach Mark Kingston said. “But what I told the team (after the game) was they kept their self-respect. Their attitude and effort never wavered. They played hard. We just didn’t play well enough, often enough.”
Against No. 5 seed and potential NCAA tournament host LSU (34-22), the Gamecocks scrapped ahead early with a five-run second inning that erased an early solo home from for the Tigers off redshirt freshman starter Cam Tringali.
A single and catcher’s interference started things off, putting two runners aboard for senior first baseman Chris Cullen, who brought both home with a double. After a batter was hit, left fielder Andrew Eyster followed with a single to left that scored Cullen. Sophomore catcher Luke Berryhill capped the outburst with an RBI single to center to score two more.
“With the way that we were hitting to end out Mississippi State, I thought we were gonna roll in here hot, and we were hot, we got a lot of hits tonight, got a decent amount of runs,” Berryhill said. “But I thought we could pull this first one out out. Obviously a little disappointment.”
That disappointment came as LSU’s offense roared to life against a shorthanded USC pitching staff that only threw underclassmen, and South Carolina’s offense went dormant, collecting just two hits over the final seven innings.
“That’s a game we scored six runs, so hopefully as we move on that’s a game we win 6-3, 6-4 in the future. Six runs in the SEC is enough to win games if you’re pitching,” Kingston said.
But South Carolina’s young pitchers, many throwing the most innings in a season of their careers, were mostly flat Tuesday.
In the bottom of the second, Tringali loaded the bases with a single, stolen base, hit batsman and walk, then surrendered an RBI single that scored two.
In the fourth, freshman Dylan Harley hit his first batter and threw two wild pitches to let the runner make it to third. He was replaced by sophomore Parker Coyne, who gave up an RBI single to right field, followed by a double and a wild pitch to tie the game. Another RBI single put the Tigers ahead.
They added to their lead in the fifth off Coyne, using a walk, infield single and flyout to put runners on second and third, then taking advantage of defensive miscommunication for another infield single that scored a run. An RBI single plated the eighth unanswered run for LSU.
“Obviously the majority of the innings we’ve been pitching lately have been freshmen, so they’ll grow from it, we’ll be better from it,” Kingston remarked. “It’s just not a lot of fun going through it right now.”
One freshman pitcher, Wesley Sweatt, was effective, going 3 1/3 scoreless frames to keep South Carolina within striking distance. But after scoring a run in the eighth off a walk, single and sacrifice fly, the Gamecock offense went down quietly in the ninth to end its season without an NCAA tournament berth for the third time in five years.
“It’s definitely tough. It’s not the year we wanted to have,” Cullen said. “Everyone’s goal is to go to Omaha at the beginning of the year, and you want to do everything you can to get there, and we’re not happy with how we finished this year.”
“That team played hard,” Kingston said. “You can say whatever you want, that team played hard, and that’s a hard thing to do when you go through the struggles that we’ve gone through. Very few teams would play as hard as we have til the bitter end.”