By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
HOOVER, Ala. — When Vanderbilt's Connor Kaiser hit a game-tying home run in the bottom of the seventh inning Tuesday, South Carolina players could have hung their heads.
When they stranded the go-ahead run in the eighth, they could have been deflated again. And when freshman Riley Hogan hit into a double-play with the winning run at third in the ninth, it could have completely broken their spirit, handing Vanderbilt a come-from-behind victory in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
After all, this team has suffered heartbreak after heartbreak this season, with blown leads and late-inning losses piling up like runners left on base.
But Chad Holbrook's players, which are fighting for their playoff lives, refused to give up. They refused to hang their heads and they refused to quit fighting.
With closer Tyler Johnson delivering one of the best performances of his career to keep them in the game, the Gamecocks rallied and finally delivered in the clutch, scoring three runs in the 11th inning to beat Vanderbilt 7-4 and keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
"I couldn't be prouder of my team," Holbrook said after getting his first win in the SEC Tournament after seven straight losses dating back to 2012. "They have had a lot thrown at them throughout the season and they knew their backs were against the wall and it was a one-game season, and they played their tails off and handled adversity throughout the game."
Now the Gamecocks (32-23) advance to the double-elimination portion of the tournament with the chance to win a couple of more games and possibly play their way into the NCAA Tournament.
After finishing 13-17 in the SEC and losing eight straight conference series, the Gamecocks had to win Tuesday and likely need an impressive run in the tournament to return to the NCAAs.
After losing a host of close games this season — 10 by one run, 19 by three runs or less — it looked like they would drop another one in familiar fashion to a Vanderbilt team that won two of three in Columbia back in April.
They were staked to a 3-0 lead thanks to early home runs by Carlos Cortes and Jonah Bride. But starter Reed Scott walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the second and third baseman Will Toffey cleared them with a 3-run double to tie the game.
Justin Row then hit another home run to put South Carolina back on top, 4-3, and Scott and Josh Reagan held the Commodores to just two hits through six innings.
Then Kaiser, a No. 9 hitter batting .212, hit the first home run of his college career to tie it.
The Gamecocks then went seven straight innings without scoring, getting just one hit after the third and wasting opportunity after opportunity.
It would have been easy for Gamecock fans and South Carolina players to expect another bitter, late-game loss. It would have been no surprise had Holbrook's team rolled over and just walked away with another tough loss and a fitting end to the season.
But they didn't. They kept fighting, and finally delivered in the clutch.
"You have to be around my players every single day to understand the investment they put in," an impassioned Holbrook said. "And when you see investment after investment and work after work, and they don't get a return, it can break your spirit. I'm just as proud as I can be of our players because their spirit wasn't broken. It hasn't been broken all year long."
Though the losses and injuries and bad breaks have taken a toll on the team, perhaps contributing to those eight straight series losses, Holbrook insists his team has never gotten down and never quit working and playing hard.
"Is our record where we want it to be? No," he said. "Have they played some pretty darn good baseball, in my view? Yes. We lost some tough ones, but they stuck together, they had a good spirit about 'em and they came to the park every day to get better, even when things didn't look good. It was good to see them perform at such a high level."
The Gamecock dugout came alive when Row doubled in the 11th to put runners at second and third with two out. It was re-energized when Hogan, who had hit into the inning-ending double play in the ninth, drew a walk to force in the go-ahead run.
And it erupted when Alex Destino blasted one off the wall in right field to drive in two more runs.
"I was more excited to look at my teammates in the dugout and watch them celebrate and just see the smiles on the faces of guys who haven't smiled in a while," Destino said.
They Gamecocks have had very few come-from-behind victories this year. Way too often, they have been on the other end of such late-game heroics, including a couple of devastating game-winning home runs at Auburn and Florida and extra-inning losses Vandy and LSU.
"It was great to see our team celebrate in the dugout, because those moments have been few and far between," Holbrook said. "A lot of those end-of-the-game moments haven't gone our way. To see our guys celebrate a big moment like that, our kids deserve a moment like that."
Destino said the win, in that fashion, relieves a bit of pressure and maybe prepares them to make a surprise run in the tournament.
"It's a big win for the Gamecocks," he said. "We just have to keep it going. A win like that kinda gets you in the right frame of mind moving forward."