**By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth**
Clarke Schmidt bounced back from a rough start to deliver another spectacular pitching performance for South Carolina Friday night.
And the Gamecock offense rallied from a five-run deficit and had a chance to tie the game.
But once again South Carolina came up short, falling to Mississippi State 7-4 after the tying run was thrown out at the plate in the seventh inning.
The loss — the Gamecocks' sixth in nine games and fifth in seven SEC games — left head coach Chad Holbrook scratching his head and wondering when his team is going to catch a break.
"One night we lose because we don't play good defense and one night we lose because we gave up a tough pitch in a tough spot," he said.
This time it was defense that doomed the Gamecocks, who committed three costly errors that led to five unearned runs.
After running into early trouble, Schmidt bounced back and was brilliant again, retiring 19 straight batters through eight innings. He gave up just five hits, two earned runs and had 11 strikeouts on 114 pitches. Josh Reagan pitched well in the ninth, but two errors in the inning led to two more Mississippi State runs.
"Clarke pitched his heart out, Josh pitched his heart out … (but) we didn't play great defense and you have to play defense in this league every night," Holbrook said.
Mississippi State did most of its damage in the first two innings. Brent Rooker, who leads the SEC in nearly every offensive category, launched a long home run to the deepest part of the ballpark in the first inning to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead.
Mississippi State then erupted for four runs in the second on four hits and an error. MSU had two on and one out when LT Tolbert mishandled a grounder to second, allowing a run to score. Hunter Stovall followed with a two-run single and Jake Mangum knocked in another run for a 5-0 lead.
"The four-run inning is not a four-run inning if we make a play, and right now when we don't make a play, the other team capitalizes on it," Holbrook said. "That's the trend we're in right now and we've got to fight our way out of it."
Schmidt, who allowed just five hits, took the blame for not getting himself out of the inning.
"I've got to do a better job getting out of that inning. I can't let that happen," he said. "I let it get out of my hands too much."
Schmidt, a nominee for the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's best player, rallied to blank the Bulldogs over the next six innings and keep his team in the game.
"He was special from the third inning on," Holbrook said.
South Carolina, meanwhile, had just two hits until the seventh, when it scored four runs on three hits and two errors. Chris Cullen started the inning with a leadoff single and Alex Destino followed with a double off the left-field wall. Cullen scored on a wild pitch and Destino came home when Jacob Olson grounded to short but MSU shortstop Ryan Bridley made a wild throw to first.
Tolbert knocked in Olson, who was originally called out at home but the call was overturned after review. Tolbert scored on Jonah Bride's double to left, but Madison Stokes, who reached on an error, was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.
South Carolina gave two of those runs back in the ninth. Elijah MacNamee started the inning with a leadoff double and Reagan tried to get him out at third on a sacrifice bunt attempt, but third baseman Jonah Bride dropped the ball. Reagan then struck out the next two batters, but Stovall hit a fly ball to left center that Destino tracked down but dropped for a two-base error.
The Gamecocks got one hit in the ninth but could not put together a rally.
"That's a play I need to make," said Destino, who had three hits at the plate. "We go into the ninth down one, that's a lot different than down three. I'm pretty upset, but baseball is all about bouncing back and we have to play tomorrow. I'm just going to wear this one tonight."
Holbrook, meanwhile, is searching for answers and looking for a way to get his team turned around.
"We've got to find a way not to make our pitchers be perfect and give them a little cushion, score a bit more runs," he said. "It's the culmination of a lot of things right now and we have to find a way to pick ourselves up and fight our way out of it.
"Our kids are crushed and they are hurting. We just need a break to go our way and maybe we can get out of it."