*Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth**
Clarke Schmidt struck out a career-high 11 batters in South Carolina's 4-3 win over Wright State Friday night, but the biggest one came after the wheels nearly came off his magnificent performance.
Staked to a 3-0 lead thanks to some timely hitting by the Gamecocks, Schmidt was cruising until he became embroiled in one of the wackiest innings of his career in the fifth.
With one out, shortstop Madison Stokes dropped a sky-high popup in the middle of the infield. Schmidt then gave up one of the four hits he allowed to put two runners on. Then, with two out, he unleashed a wild pitch to allow a run.
It got even weirder from there. Schmidt hit three of the next four batters he faced and, coupled with an infield hit, Wright State scored two more runs to tie the game.
Suddenly, South Carolina's 3-0 lead evaporated and Schmidt's dominating performance seemed in jeopardy.
"It was a disappointing inning from a defensive standpoint," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "If we catch that fly ball with (one) out and nobody on, Clarke is pitching into the eighth maybe. We didn't help ourselves there. A couple of passed balls, hit by pitches, just a comedy of errors.
"But it didn't lose the game. Our guys stayed in the game and kept their wits about them, and for that I am proud of them."
Schmidt, who allowed just four hits and struck out 11 in 6.1 innings, got a big strikeout to get out of the inning and stay in the game to throw 101 pitches.
In the seventh, Wright State, which won two of three against Clemson last week, threatened again. After a double, Stokes bobbled another ball to put two runners on with one out. But Holbrook called on reliever Colie Bowers, who got a pop-up and a huge strikeout to get out of the inning.
That set up the biggest moment of the game in the bottom of the seventh. After TJ Hopkins drew a walk, Alex Destino lined a shot into the left center field gap to score Hopkins from first for a 4-3 lead.
Josh Reagan and Tyler Johnson took care of the rest. Reagan ended the eighth with a strikeout and Johnson blew away three straight Wright State hitters in the ninth with 97- and 98-mph fastballs.
"Clarke was phenomenal. All of our pitchers were incredible," Holbrook said. "Clarke got us off to a great start, and we pitched well behind him as well."
Schmidt, a third-team All-American last year, is South Carolina's Friday night starter for a reason. Not only does he have electric stuff, but he has big-league composure. He showed it in that bizarre fifth inning.
"It's frustrating. We had a couple of miscues but as a pitcher my job is to go out there and get through that," he said. "If we have errors or passed balls or whatever the case may be, my job is to work it."
Schmidt said the Wright State hitters were leaning over the plate when he hit the three batters, and at one point questioned the home plate umpire about it. He didn't let the setbacks get to him, though.
"Those batters that I hit, that doesn't matter to me," he said. "They are trying to take away my fastball in, so if I'm going to hit you, I'm going to hit you. I would rather hit them than leave it over the middle and give up a double or something. I got a good pitch and was able to get out of it, and that was the big thing."
When Bowers pitched out of the jam in the seventh, Schmidt was the first player to charge out of the dugout and congratulate him. Bowers got the win, his second of the week, and has not allowed a run in 5.1 innings of relief this season.
"I was really excited for him," Schmidt said. "He's a really hard worker and he deserved an outing like that. It's a big confidence booster for him to get guys in scoring position and you get out of it in a one-run ballgame on a Friday night. That was big for him."
As has been the case often this season, Destino got the big hit. He was part of a first-inning outburst when he and Hopkins singled ahead of Matt Williams' two-run double. Madison Stokes homered in the fourth for a 3-0 lead.
Then, after Wright State tied it, Destino came up again with the big hit, lining a run-scoring double to left-center.
"I knew that was an extra-base hit kind of spot," said Destino, who has nine RBI in the first six games. "I wanted to drive it pull-side but he threw me a pretty good sequence, I got a fastball away and I went with it and was lucky enough to split the gap."
Destino was working hard on two things in the batting cage prior to the game — hitting curve balls and going the other way. It paid off in the game
"That's going to help me sleep good tonight."
As will his teammates, who pulled out a big win after a disappointing loss Thursday to Kansas State.
"Right now we are making it a little difficult on us. I think when we put this thing together, we're going to be a tough team to beat," Holbrook said.
The series with Wright State continues Saturday at 4 p.m at Founders Park.