By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina entered Sunday's game against Mississippi State reeling from a three-game losing streak and from six losses in their last eight SEC games.
The Gamecocks needed a spark, something to give them a lift, something to generate some energy and help them snap out of their funk.
They got it from a players-only meeting Saturday night that seemed to result in a new attitude and a boost of energy on Sunday.
Organized by seniors Reed Scott and Ross Grosvenor and junior Hunter Taylor, the meeting seemed to help as South Carolina rallied from a 1-0 deficit to tie the game and put together a five-run eighth inning to beat Mississippi State 6-1 and avoid a sweep.
"We just got together and figured some things out, and obviously it worked," said shortstop Madison Stokes, who led South Carolina with three hits.
"We just went over some things we needed to talk about, and whatever we needed to get off our chest, we got off our chest," said closer Tyler Johnson, who finished the game with two strikeouts in the ninth.
After a 7-4 loss on Friday and a 5-4 loss Saturday — games that featured uncharacteristic errors and misplays in the field and another blown lead — the Gamecocks had more energy in the dugout Sunday and it paid off with a big inning when they needed it most.
With the game tied 1-1 in the eighth, South Carolina finally made all the right moves, got a couple of clutch hits and even had a break go their way. Jacob Olson, who was moved to the leadoff spot on Saturday, started the inning with a single to left. Carlos Cortes then drew a walk and Chris Cullen bunted the runners to second and third.
After an intentional walk to Alex Destino, Jonah Bride poked a short fly ball into foul territory in right field, allowing Olson to tag up and score from third. LT Tolbert followed with a two-run single up the middle for a 4-1 lead. Tolbert then stole second and scored when Mississippi State left fielder Cody Brown couldn't catch Matt Williams' fly ball with two out. Stokes took advantage of the error by knocking in Williams with a sharp single to center, his third hit of the day.
Adam Hill had another strong start, Josh Reagan pitched two scoreless innings and Johnson closed it out with a dominant ninth.
"It was a big relief to win this one today after the way we lost the first two," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "We live to fight another day and keep our head above water in the SEC."
Holbrook and his team were down and searching for answers after Saturday's bitter defeat — it's seventh one-run loss of the season. If the team meeting helped, Holbrook will take it.
"I think they made a pact with themselves," he said. "I heard they had some team meeting last night. … If they did and it worked, they can have all the team meetings they want."
"It was just something that sparked," Stokes said. "And hopefully that spark will take to a big flame and it will grow from that."
Stokes, who was benched on Saturday as Holbrook shook up his starting lineup, responded Sunday with one of his best games of the season. He entered the game hitting .231 but had three hits, including an RBI single.
"Obviously, I want to play and I was frustrated," Stokes said. "Not at Coach Holbrook or anybody else, I just love playing, my passion for the game. I wanted to be out there playing with my brothers and competing.
"Today, I had that in the back of my mind a little bit. I wanted to be out there playing the best I can and helping the team, and today we did a good job of that."
Hill matched the outstanding pitching efforts of Clarke Schmidt and Wil Crowe, throwing five shutout innings until running into trouble in the sixth.
Hill had given up just two hits until Jake Mangum's leadoff double in the sixth. South Carolina intentionally walked Brent Rooker, the SEC's leading hitter, but Ryan Gridley doubled down the right field line to drive in a run. After a strikeout, Hill intentionally walked Hunter Vansau to load the bases. The move worked as Hill induced an inning-ending double play to get out of the inning.
That was perhaps the pivotal play of the game.
"Things didn't look good for us after that double, but our pitchers did a good job and we managed the inning and holding them to one run there, the dugout got some momentum," Holbrook said.
Hill's ability to pitch out of the jam paid off when Carlos Cortes hit this third home run of the weekend in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game. Cortes, the true freshman from Oviedo, Fla. who has played his way into the Gamecock lineup, homered twice on Saturday.
Hill allowed just one run on four hits and had seven strikeouts in six innings. He has allowed just one run in his last two starts after throwing a six-inning no-hitter against Vanderbilt last Sunday.
Reagan held Mississippi State at bay in the seventh and eighth, giving South Carolina a chance to break out with a big inning. Now the Gamecocks are looking to build momentum heading into a non-conference game against Davidson Tuesday before another big series at Florida next weekend.
"I think this game is definitely going to spring us into something that it is going to be hard to beat us," Stokes said. "We are not going back down form here on out and we're excited to see what is going to happen from here."
After the win, which improved South Carolina to 22-13 overall and 8-7 in the SEC, Holbrook believes the tough times in the past three weeks may prepare his team for better days ahead.
"With what our players have been through and how we have lost some games, some of the expectations have been weighing on them," he said. "Maybe that will make them tougher for this stretch run. I'm a glass-half-full guy. Maybe there is something in store for this team down the stretch that we will play our best baseball."