By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
HOOVER, Ala. — South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook has been waiting on the old Tyler Johnson to return.
He has been waiting for his dominant closer to be dominant again.
He was on Tuesday, leading South Carolina to a big win over Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
Johnson entered a 4-4 game with two outs in the seventh inning and completely dominated Vanderbilt over the next four innings, allowing the Gamecocks to rally for a 7-4, 11-inning victory in a must-win game. Johnson allowed just one hit and struck out eight in 4.1 innings to earn the win.
"Tyler Johnson was special. He was Tyler Johnson today," Holbrook said.
"Tyler Johnson obviously was the difference once the game got going," Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. "He came in and didn't really give us much of a chance. He was just an aggressor."
Johnson, who entered the season as one of the top closers in the country, missed 20 games earlier in the year with a sore arm. When he returned, he wasn't the same. The high-90s fastball was still there, but the command was not.
He has shown signs of turning it around in the last couple of weeks, pitching a scoreless inning to earn a save in a 4-3 win at Missouri, and then pitching 1.2 perfect innings in a 10-0 win over Georgia Saturday.
But the Gamecocks have never needed Johnson more than they did on Tuesday. With the game tied, they needed to hold down Vandy until the offense could grab the lead. Johnson got his first strikeout after Connor Kaiser homered off Josh Reagan to tie the game. He then struck out the side in the eighth.
He stuck out the side again in the 10th and got Vanderbilt in order in the bottom of the 11th after his team had taken the lead. His performance was reminiscent of the complete game he threw in a rare start last year in the NCAA Regional.
"I was able to put the ball in the zone and … just keep pounding the fastball," said Johnson, who dominated Vanderbilt with a high-90s fastball. "I wasn't trying to throw my hardest, just trying to stay within myself."
Johnson has gotten multi-inning saves this year, but the four-inning stint was his longest of the season. Holbrook said Monday he might give Johnson an extended look, but he didn't expect to go four innings.
"With the way things have gone, I really just took it one pitch at a time, and once I did something good I said, 'Let's do it again,'" Johnson said. "I didn't have expectations of going that far but I am glad I could help get the team the win."
He was particularly pleased to see South Carolina rally for seven runs in the 11th. Johnson, 0-2 with nine saves entering the game, has been on the wrong end of some blown leads this season. The Gamecocks scored three in the 11th on Riley Hogan's bases-loaded walk and Alex Destino's two-run double.
"I just know that those two extra runs were appreciated," he said. "We've had some other situations that haven't always worked out for me. It really calmed me down."