South Carolina’s bid at history came up just short Friday night against Elon as Pheonix shortstop Garrett Koster’s solo home run with two outs in the ninth broke up a no-hitter. South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner will take the win, though, as the Gamecocks improve to 4-0 on the season with the 8-1 victory in game-one of a three-game weekend series.
Senior All-American Michael Roth exited the game without giving up a hit after throwing 99 pitches in seven innings. He was exceptional, earning the win. The left-hander baffled Elon hitters all night forcing them into lazy pop-ups and easy grounders. Roth also struck out seven.
“I’ve seen Michael do that a bunch of times,” said first baseman Christian Walker, who had five RBIs and a two-run home run. “When he’s in that groove it seems like nobody can touch him.”
On a pitch count, Roth asked Tanner if he was sure he wanted Roth out of the game between the seventh and eighth innings, but Tanner wasn’t willing to push Roth deep into the game this early in the season just for a record.
“Coach Tanner just said ‘good night’,” Roth said. “That’s about it.”
“No, there really wasn’t,” Tanner said when asked if there was any doubt about pulling Roth in the situation. “I wanted to pull him a little earlier, actually. I was hoping to keep him around 85 [pitches] and I think he threw 98 or 99. I left him out there maybe an inning longer than I wanted to.”
“Honestly,” Tanner added, “maybe it’s a fault of mine that I really wasn’t engrossed in that. I just wasn’t. I wanted to win the game and if it happens, it happens. I didn’t change anything. We weren’t going to try to do anything differently to see that it happened. I know that our guys would have liked to have seen it, but for me I didn’t get too wrapped up in it.”
Junior left-hander Nolan Belcher took the mound to a loud ovation in the eighth as he made his first appearance since 2010. Belcher missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but looked sharp in his inning of work allowing just a walk and no hits. Belcher’s outing may have been even better had he gotten the benefit of the doubt from the home plate umpire on several close pitches that were called balls.
“I was touched by our fan support and the encouragement they gave him, the appreciation they showed him upon entering the game,” Tanner said. “I thought that was special, I really did.”
Junior right-hander Patrick Sullivan started the ninth inning for the Gamecocks and was able to get two quick outs before Kotters’ blast disappeared into the cool night air effectively ending the chance for the first South Carolina no-hitter since 1975.
Baseball players are superstitious, and none of the players made available to the media would admit to talking about or even thinking much about the no-hitter as the game progressed. But fingers were pointed after the fact.
“We were just trying to find somebody to blame it on,” Roth said. “I think somebody said Erik Payne. Belcher’s over there saying Joel Seddon. A couple of guys said the bat boy. You just try to find who the scape goat is. It’s definitely not Patrick’s fault. Somebody had to say something.”
“I haven’t said anything to (Patrick) yet,” he added. “He’s a little sulky, still. I’ll get on him. It’s all fun and games for that. It’s still a win. A shutout would have been nice, but it’s still a win and that’s what we were coming out here to do tonight.”
While Tanner was happy with the win, he said following the press conference to a group of reporters that he wasn’t necessarily happy with the way the Gamecocks swung the bats. Though they scored eight runs, five uncharacteristic Elon errors contributed to that.
Elon starter Kyle Webb, who took the loss, only lasted four innings, but only three of the five runs given up while he was on the mound were earned, and he seemed to have the Gamecocks baffled through the first two innings.
The Gamecocks broke through in the third inning. After starting a 6-3 double play to end the previous inning, shortstop Joey Pankake led off the inning with a stand-up triple on a towering fly ball to left that bounced off the wall and rolled back towards the in-field. The wind seemed to be a factor blowing a ball back into player that Walker insisted Pankake crushed. Pankake finished the evening two-for-four with three runs scored.
After a strikeout and Evan Marzilli walk, Tanner English’s bouncer was fielded by the third baseman, but the time he took to look Pankake back to third allowed English to beat the throw to first. Walker then got hit by pitch giving him his first RBI and the Gamecocks a 1-0 lead. With the bases still loaded, LB Dantzler ripped a liner right at the right fielder, who made the catch, but Marzilli safely tagged up for a 2-0 lead. Catcher Grayson Greiner then dumped a blooper into right to score English and give the Gamecocks a 3-0 lead.
South Carolina struck for two more in the fourth inning.
Adam Matthews reached base on an error to start the inning after second baseman Sabastian Gomez’s throw to first was high and couldn’t be handled. Pankake then ripped a single up the middle into center field. Chase Vergason then put down a successful sacrifice bunt to the left side, but the catcher was charged with Elon’s second error of the inning when he couldn’t pick the ball up and everyone was safe.
Elon nearly escaped the inning unscathed after Webb struck out Marzilli and English for two outs. But Walker’s dribbler to the left side with the bases loaded was enough to push across two more runs. Webb came off the mound to field the ball cleanly with his bare hand, but had to make an awkward throw allowing Walker to reach safely and Matthews to score. Because there was a full count and two outs, all runners were running on the pitch which gave Pankake a full head of steam around third allowing him to score too giving USC a 5-0 lead.
South Carolina tacked on two more in the sixth when Walker delivered his first home run of the season – a deep blast over the left field wall and into the bleachers to put Carolina up 7-0. “That’s about as far as I’m going to hit a ball,” he said of the blast.
The Gamecocks added another run in the eighth on an English sacrifice fly to left.
While the game nearly made history, it also nearly didn’t happen as rain storms drenched Columbia all Thursday night and into the afternoon Friday. First pitch was originally scheduled for 3 p.m., but the game didn’t start until 6:15.
South Carolina is back in action Saturday at Carolina Stadium for game-two of the series with Elon. First pitch is scheduled for 1:30 with Matt Price taking the mound for the Gamecocks.