**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
After blowing two leads and dropping two of three games to rival Clemson last week, South Carolina could have plenty of reasons to be worried about another tough weekend series against a strong Michigan State team.
But the No. 7 Gamecocks (9-5) erased most of those worries with a couple of much-needed wins this week. They pounded The Citadel 12-5 Tuesday, banging out a season-high 15 hits, including three home runs. On Wednesday, they rallied to beat Winthrop 8-6 with a big eighth inning.
"These are huge for us," catcher Chris Cullen said after Wednesday's win. "Coming off an emotional weekend, getting two wins against two good programs, this is big for us and gives us some momentum going into this weekend against Michigan State."
The Gamecocks jumped on The Citadel early and pulled away with a six-run fifth inning that featured a three-run homer by TJ Hopkins.
Things looked bleak against Winthrop, however. The Eagles took a 4-0 lead in the first inning and were up 6-3 after five. But the Gamecocks scored a run in the seventh and Alex Destino led off the eighth with his third home run of the season. Jonah Bride followed with a double and Winthrop self-destructed, allowing a run on a throwing error on a bunt and letting another run score on a wild pitch and passed ball.
South Carolina put a lot of pressure on Winthrop with aggressive base-running and, perhaps most importantly, got a couple of big breaks. Those kind of breaks went against the Gamecocks versus Clemson when they committed a costly error, couldn't get a big bunt down and threw a wild pitch in Sunday's 5-3 loss.
South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook was glad to see his team finally get some breaks.
"We finally had a ball get thrown in the corner and a couple of errors helped us," he said. "You've got to make your own breaks, too. Madison (Stokes) stuck his nose in there and got the bunt down."
South Carolina missed out on a golden scoring opportunity in the bottom of the ninth against Clemson when pinch hitter Justin Row could not get a bunt down. Clemson got the next two outs with the bases loaded to send the game to extra innings. Holbrook took a lot of heat for the bunt attempt with Destino, the designated hitter, scheduled to hit with runners in scoring position.
"When you put the bunt on and you don't bunt it well, it looks like a really bad play," Holbrook said. "But when you get the bunt down and it works, it looks like a good play. It comes down to execution. (Stokes) was determined to get that bunt down, and it really made a difference in the game."
Manufacturing the winning runs against Winthrop could go a long way toward exorcising South Carolina's demons against Clemson.
"That was huge for us. Something went our way," Cullen said. "Any time things aren't going your way in a baseball game, you have to try everything and find ways to win, and that's what we did. We had production from a lot of different guys, and when you find ways to win like that, it's going to carry you a long way."
Cullen is also starting to come up big for the Gamecocks. After a slow start to the season, he heated up this week. He hit his second home of the season against The Citadel, going 3-for-5 and knocking in five runs. He homered again against Winthrop.
"I feel really comfortable now," said Cullen, who was expected to hit in the middle of the Gamecock order. "I started off slow but things are coming together now."
Now South Carolina takes on a Big Ten team that is off to a hot start. Michigan State has the No. 2 RPI in the country and was 9-1 before losing to Clemson Wednesday night.
"Their RPI is really good so they are not scared to play big teams and travel to big places so it's going to be a dog fight," Desinto said. "Every weekend this year has been a tough weekend. We're ready for them. … (Winthrop) was a good win to kinda set us on the right track."