By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Shortstop Madison Stokes faced the media Friday night to try and help explain one of the worst losses in South Carolina baseball history.
The Gamecocks had just gotten pounded by Kentucky 19-1, the worst loss in Founders Park history and the worst South Carolina defeat since a 30-7 loss to Arkansas in 1997. Stokes was asked how it happened and how the Gamecocks could bounce back from such a terrible defeat.
It was not an easy chore, answering such questions after a terrible loss and in the midst of South Carolina's continuing losing streak.
But at the end of his three-minute interview, Stokes found a reason to smile.
In his hand, he held a stack of letters and thank-you cards from students that he had written to, wishing them well on their recent exams. The students are taught by the sister of team manager Blaire Epting, and Stokes was glad to offer them some encouragement.
The letters and thank-you cards made Stokes smile on a night when their was little to smile about at Founders Park.
"This is great," Stokes said. "I will go home and read these. I get enjoyment out of this just to know that a game and a sport can inspire kids. Even just writing a letter to them telling them good luck, just the impact and platform that we as players have on this college level is such a cool thing, not just to inspire each other but to inspire kids.
"I haven't even met them, but we are still inspiring kids that watch us and support us. I think that's a pretty cool thing that baseball has to offer."
Stokes and his teammates needed a bit of joy and inspiration after their 10th loss in the last 16 games and the ninth in SEC play.
After eight one-run losses and a series of bitter defeats, the 19-1 loss to Kentucky was demoralizing. The Wildcats hit four home runs and pounded out 20 hits, the most a Gamecock squad has allowed since 2006.
South Carolina, meanwhile, had just seven hits, only two for extra bases, and didn't score until backup and pinch-hitter Ross Grosvenor ripped an RBI double in the bottom of the eighth. The Gamecocks doomed starter Wil Crowe with two early errors and a series of blunders.
On the scoreboard, it looked a lot like a 16-1 loss to Auburn in 2007 and a 16-0 loss to Mississippi State in 1998. But with the struggles the Gamecocks have endured lately, this felt much worse.
It was so bad that the announced crowd of 7,000-plus was filing out of the stadium in the sixth inning, leaving only a smattering of fans remaining when South Carolina finally scored.
The loss left head coach Chad Holbrook and players like Stokes searching for words.
After a tough series loss to Florida on the road last weekend and the heartbreaking news this week that it had lost ace pitcher Clarke Schmidt for the rest of the season, the Gamecocks had what they called their best week of practice this week and seemed ready to play Friday night.
"We came in here ready to play and they just jumped on us early and kept pounding away, and we didn't," Stokes said. "In the end, it just goes down as a loss. It doesn't matter if it is 20-0 or 1-0, we lost the game."
After so many one-run and late-game losses, getting blown out by Kentucky was a shock. But in a sense, it may be easier to get over than the heartbreaking losses that left this team reeling and started its recent slide.
"It's gotten worse, it's gotten harder, but it's kinda like in life. When it rains, it pours," Stokes said. "We've just got to continue to push forward through this adversity.
"I know we'll be OK. I have 100 percent trust in every single one of my teammates and coaches. It's just something we're going through right now but I believe we are going to be able to come out of it."
Then Stokes looked down at his handful of letters and smiled.