We've seen this story before. The Gamecocks (39-15, 18-11 SEC) needed to perform in the final series of the season in order claim an SEC regular season title outright. Last year the Gamecocks needed to sweep Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Gamecocks dropped game 1 by a score of 2-1 before taking the last two games to share the SEC title with Florida and Vanderbilt -- something of a hollow victory considering USC won both series with the Gators and Commodores earlier in the year. In 2010 the Gamecocks dropped the first two games of a crucial series with the Florida Gators to decide the regular season title, scoring only 4 runs in the process. Now this year, with another SEC championship trophy on the line, the Gamecocks faltered once again, taking only one game from the LSU Tigers (42-14, 19-11 SEC) at home.
Game one of the series was over before it ever got started -- literally. After having the last game of the UGA series and the mid-week tilt against USC Upstate canceled due to weather, Thursday's match was postponed in favor of a double header on Friday. My sources in Columbia report no rain having fallen after 7:00, so the decision to postpone may have proved to be a fatal one. The Gamecocks would go on to drop the first match of the double header by a 5-2 margin. Michael Roth allowed 3 earned runs in 8 innings of work while also taking his first loss of the season. The Tigers jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back. That seemed to be the story of the weekend. In fact, USC pitchers allowed a single run in the first inning of all three games. For their part, the earliest the Gamecocks ever scored was the third inning. Carolina managed only 2 runs off 5 hits en route to the defeat.
The Gamecocks fared better in the evening match of the double header. Once again falling behind early, USC rallied to take the lead in the 6th inning with a four run outburst. They added another in the 7th to seal the victory 5-4. Tyler Webb earned the "W" by pitching 1.2 scoreless innings in relief of Forrest Koumas. Evan Beal walked the only two batters he faced in relief of Webb while Matt Price earned the save by pitching the final 3 innings. There was a little drama in the 7th inning when Adam Matthews' 2-run home run was ruled a ground rule double by the umpiring crew. The ball actually ricocheted off the concourse railing above left field -- leaving little doubt to those of us with a pair of two working eyes -- but the call was never corrected. The call was so bad that even LSU fans were making a good deal of commotion about it. Thankfully, the lost run ended up not having any bearing on the outcome of the game.
More after the jump.
In game 3 the Tigers once again led off the game with a single run in the top of the 1st. Colby Holmes (6-0, 2.91 ERA) went 6.2 innings in the effort while not allowing an earned run. The Gamecocks tied the game in the 3rd inning when Evan Marzilli was sacrificed home after a triple to lead off the inning. There would be no scoring again until the 11th inning, when LSU put up a pair in the top half of the frame. South Carolina made admirable run at countering even bringing the go-ahead run to the plate twice. Alas, a two run deficit in the 11th inning proved too much for the Gamecocks to overcome. LSU took the game, the series, and the SEC regular season title.
The Gamecocks played well for the most part. They committed only one error on the weekend. The pitching just wasn't quite perfect enough to overcome a lackluster offense. LSU managed to put the lead off batter aboard 12 out of the 28 innings this weekend. USC managed the same feat only 7 times. Scoring runs is exponentially more difficult when you've got no runners on base and only two outs to work with. USC has been amazingly consistent of offense this year, even if that means they haven't been "good." They're currently ranked 8th in the SEC in batting average, on-base percentage, runs scored, hits, RBIs, and doubles. That's not to say we can't get hot and make another run to Omaha, though.
Now, we all know how 2010 and 2011 turned out for the Garnet and Black. After early exits fro the SEC Tournament, each of those teams would go on an improbable run through the regionals and super regionals and, finally, through the College World Series. It remains to be seen whether this team can muster the same sort of magic that propelled the Gamecocks of 2010 and 2011 to national titles, but what we know right now is that team will not hoist the SEC regular season trophy in 2012.
There's no great shame in losing a series 1-2 at home to the 9th best team in the country according to Baseball America or the 7th best according to the RPI. However, there will be consequences. The biggest is that the Gamecocks might be in danger of not garnering a #1 seed in this year's NCAA tournament. At this point I have to think the Gamecocks still have a better resume than others contending for those last three or four number 1 seeds. They won their division, and nearly won the conference title in the toughest baseball conference in the country. I'm not sure that even a two-and-out situation in the SEC tournament will take away their rights to a home field advantage on the road to Omaha. But it could happen. Namely, a run by Kentucky through the SEC tournament could potentially give them enough cache to take the Gamecocks' place as the third SEC team with a number one seed -- especially if Florida is their opponent in the championship. More likely, though, the selection committee would look at South Carolina's entire body of work and realize that they have been one of the most consistent teams in the country all year. Set aside a narrow sweep (if there is such a thing) at the hands of Kentucky and the Gamecocks' only two series losses of the season are 2-1 decisions versus the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers, two consensus top 10 teams. I might add that each of those series featured a closely contested one-run loss by the Gamecocks. So all is not lost, Gamecock faithful. Just the SEC regular season championship. Again.