By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina baseball players could have hung their heads Tuesday night after news earlier in the day that they had lost two more starters to injuries.
But with a spot in the postseason on the line, there is no time for that. At 31-21 and 12-15 in the SEC, the Gamecocks may have to win every game from here on out to have a reasonable shot at making the NCAA tournament.
There is no time to lick their wounds after losing catcher Chris Cullen and shortstop Madison Stokes for the rest of the season.
The Gamecocks took care of their first big task this week by beating USC Upstate 6-3 Tuesday night.
"Coach was talking about we have to treat this game like an SEC weekend," said junior Alex Destino, who homered in the seventh inning for the final margin. "It's no secret that these next three games are huge for the implications going down the road. We approached it like that. Every game is a do-or-die game."
Cullen, South Carolina's starting catcher at the start of the season, has battled a knee injury all year. The team announced Tuesday morning that he would miss the rest of the season after having surgery.
Then came news later in the day that it had also lost Stokes, its starting shortstop, to a broken wrist.
Head coach Chad Holbrook couldn't help but wonder how his team would respond Tuesday night.
"It was a tough day for us with news that Cullen is out for the year and Stokes is out for the year and I was wondering how our kids would take it once the game started, but we played well," Holbrook said.
The Gamecocks got a big lift from Justin Row, who moved into the lineup at second base with LT Tolbert moving to short to replace Stokes. Row went 3-for-4 with his first home run of the season. Carlos Cortes was also 3-for-4 with his ninth home run.
Cody Morris gave the Gamecocks a strong start on the mound. Making his ninth start of the season, Morris went a career-high six innings. He gave up eight hits but allowed just three earned runs and struck out seven. Colie Bowers took over in the seventh and allowed just one hit over the final three innings.
The Gamecocks, who have lost seven straight SEC series, now face its biggest series of the year, facing Georgia at home Thursday-Saturday. By most accounts they need to sweep the series and then have a strong showing in the SEC Tournament next week to have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
"It's huge," Destino said of the Georgia series. "Anybody that disagrees with that is lying to you. We're just trying to take this one game at a time and go 1-0 each day. Kind of treat it like we are in the postseason. It's like a win-or-go-home scenario every game."
Despite the circumstances, Holbrook said his team is in a good frame of mind.
"I feel good about our guys' psyche all year long," he said. "We have had some tough breaks, injuries and tough losses but they have come to the park every day in good fashion and worked and in good spirits. They are not a defeated group by any stretch and they know they have a lot to play for this weekend and next week and they are excited about that."
Though it was a mid-week game against a 22-30 team, step one was taking care of USC Upstate Tuesday night.
The Gamecocks jumped on the Spartans early with Cortes belting his ninth home run of the season in the first inning. Jonah Bride singled with one out before Cortes launched a drive that hit the red fence just above the right-field wall. The hit was initially ruled a ground-rule double but was overturned and called a home run after review.
USC Upsate tied the game in the top of the second after opening the inning with three straight base hits.
South Carolina used the long ball to regain the lead in the bottom of second when Row hit his first career homer. Filling in for Stokes, Row led off the second with a blast over the left-field wall. The Gamecocks added another run in the inning when Danny Blair and LT Tolbert singled and Blair scored on an RBI single by Bride.
USC Upstate used J.J. Shimko's leadoff double to add a run in the sixth and cut the lead to 4-3.
But Destino gave South Carolina some insurance with a two-run blast in the bottom of the seventh. It was his ninth home run of the season, tying Cortes for the team lead.
Destino had struck out in his first two at-bats, but talked himself into stepping up in his fourth plate appearance.
"I was kinda down on myself but I said, 'Alex you are going to hit in the bottom of the seventh and you are going to have to man up and do something for your team," he said. "I was lucky enough to put a good swing on the ball."
South Carolina will need that kind of approach the rest of this week and next week in the SEC tournament, especially after losing two more key players to injury.
"Adversity is something we are kinda accustomed to," Destino said. "… We have to stay together and take it one game at a time and have a mature approach."
Holbrook said his team will not use the injuries as an excuse.
"We are just going to keep playing," he said. "It's been tough, but you still have games to play and they still count and we're still trying to accomplish something. You can feel sorry for yourself and pout and say it's not meant to be or you can keep playing, and we've got to try to find a way to win. … There is no excuses here. It's South Carolina and we expect to win."