By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
HOOVER, Ala. — Most of the Gamecock players were on cloud nine Thursday after South Carolina pounded out 14 hits and hit four home runs in a 10-2 route against Missouri.
Not TJ Hopkins. While happy his team won, Hopkins was down in the dumps over the way he played. After going 1-for-5 and striking out three times, Hopkins was not happy with himself and was looking for another chance.
So he shot head coach Chad Holbrook a text message vowing to do better.
"I was just frustrated with the way I played yesterday and I just figured I would shoot him a text and I told him I was feeling better than I usually am with my leg and just wanted to help the team win," Hopkins said.
"He had a tough game and he was very frustrated at some of the pitches he swung at. It's been a frustrating year for him and he didn't want me to take him out of the lineup," Holbrook said.
But with backup center fielder Danny Blair getting three hits Thursday and outfielder Jacob Olson feeling better after a bout with strep throat, Holbrook left Hopkins out of the lineup Friday.
But with one out in the seventh inning and South Carolina's season on the line, he called Hopkins' number. With two runners on base and Kentucky leading 1-0, Hopkins pinch-hit for catcher Hunter Taylor.
And Hopkins redeemed himself, hitting a three-run home run to give the Gamecocks a 3-1 lead and help his team advance to the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2004. It was his fifth home run of the season, but the biggest of his career.
"I'm happy for TJ," Holbrook said. "He has been pretty much hurt all year long and he stepped up in a big spot when our season was on the line."
Hopkins, who has missed several games while battling a nagging quad injury, stepped up against left-hander Logan Salow, one of the best relievers in the country. Salow had shut down South Carolina in a Game 3 win in Columbia and was looking to shut down the Gamecocks again.
This time, Hopkins was ready.
"He was really effective the first time we played 'em. I faced him and he has a really good slider," Hopkins said. "I got up on the plate a little more and he spiked a slider the first pitch and threw a fastball up the second pitch. I was honestly just trying to go the other way with it and I saw it early and got the lead out front and hit it pretty solid."
Alex Destino led off the inning with a walk and came out for pinch-runner Christian Flint. Jonah Bride bunted Flint to second, and Olson reached on an error. Hopkins then drove the second pitch he saw over the left-field wall for the biggest home run of his career.
Did he know it was gone?
"I knew it had a good chance."
The Gamecock dugout erupted as Hopkins gave South Carolina a 3-1 lead in a tight game that saw them beat No. 3 seed Kentucky with just two hits. And it just might have been the hit and the win that saved South Carolina's season, possibly helping them earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament after a disappointing 32-23 regular season.
"It will go down as one of the biggest Gamecock wins in SEC Tournament play," Holbrook said. "I told TJ he will forever be in Gamecock lore now with that swing of the bat."
"There are no words to describe how big it was for our team," closer Tyler Johnson said of the win. "I think every guy on our team will tell you how it feels to lose a game like that. For one to go our way, and TJ to come up with a big swing …, its incredible."
About 30 minutes after the game, Hopkins was still trying to wrap his mind around the moment.
"Right now I am still kinda in shock," he said. "Later, when I'm sitting in the hotel room, I am probably going to feel pretty satisfied."
Holbrook said he didn't hesitate to call on Hopkins to pinch hit, despite his struggles on Thursday and the injuries he has dealt with this year. Hopkins has had the quad injury for about five months and said recently he has not been 100 percent all season. He has missed six games and had to come out of several others while nursing the injury.
"TJ is one of our more gifted players," Holbrook said. "Y'all have not been able to see the real TJ Hopkins. When he is healthy, he is a special player. He has been hurt all year.
"But I know he has got some pop in that bat. And I know he tends to hit pitchers that throw with high velocity a little bit better. I just felt good about the matchup. It was the right time and the right spot, and TJ put a great swing on it and made me look smart."
Holbrook also had no qualms about Hopkins' Thursday night text message. Though he chose not to start him, he was proud of the sophomore outfielder for his desire to redeem himself.
"You want kids who want to be in there. You don't want kids who shy away from competition, and TJ has never been one to shy away from competition," Holbrook said. "TJ will always be one of my all-time favorite kids. He's a tough nut, he's a football-mentality kid, believes in himself, very athletic, loves to win and he was due a moment like today. I couldn't be happier for him."