COLUMBIA, SC (TheBigSpur.com) -- The first game of the season didn't go as planned.
Despite jumping out to a 4-1 lead after the first inning, South Carolina lost its season opener for the first time since 2015 as VMI pulled a 7-6 upset in the first game of the Mark Kingston era.
There were two major problems in Kingston's eyes, who said he felt his team should have won the game. Junior Adam Hill didn't give the Gamecocks (0-1) a good enough start, and the hitters tried to do too much with two strikes.
"We played good baseball, aside from the two things that we need to get better," Kingston said.
After a four-run outburst in the first inning that included doubles by Carlos Cortes and Madison Stokes before a two-run home run by Jacob Olson, the Gamecocks should have been in good standing with Hill on the mound.
Hill, who only gave up more than four earned runs in a game twice in his 28-game career entering the season-opener, couldn't hold the lead. He gave up two runs in the second inning and four more in the top of the fourth allowing home runs to back-to-back hitters.
The T.L. Hanna product gave up seven earned runs on five hits with three walks and six strikeouts in 4 innings pitched. He threw 84 pitches and was ticketed with the loss.
"We need Adam to be better, and he will," Kingston said. "I told the team he's our guy and he'll be better on most nights."
After a great start offensively, the Gamecocks went on to leave 15 runners on base over the final seven innings. South Carolina hit .235 (4-of-17) with runners in scoring position on the night, and that was after going 3-for-3 in the first inning in that situation.
South Carolina finished the game with 12 strikeouts, which was far too many for Kingston and showed a poor approach at the wrong time.
"The key was we struck out too many times with runners in scoring position," Kingston said. "We got really excited with the big home run in the first inning and started over swinging. It's fine to let the bat head fly like we did with less than two strikes, but guys were too big with two strikes tonight, and that's why we lost the game."
Seniors Jonah Bride and Hunter Taylor along with Stokes had multi-hit days. Bride was 2-for-5 with a run scored, Stokes was 2-for-3 with two doubles, two RBIs and two walks. Taylor had a pair of singles.
The biggest bright spot of the night was freshman John Gilreath, who kept the Gamecocks in the game with his performance. He entered the game after Hill and threw four shutout innings giving up three hits and no walks. Gilreath, who enrolled early and should be a senior at Northwestern High School, struck out four in his first ever appearance in a South Carolina uniform.
"For a kid who is supposed to be a high school senior, he showed everyone why he came early," Kingston said. "He wasn't afraid of the situation, was in front of a huge crowd tonight and threw four innings scoreless with no walks. Don't walk guys, let the defense work. That's what we ask. Doesn't matter if he is 17, 18 years old or 22, he did what we asked him and he had a great outing."
Even with Gilreath throwing zeroes on the scoreboard, the Gamecocks weren't able to come back. South Carolina was gifted a run in the eighth inning courtesy of walks and an error on an overthrow by the catcher trying to get Stokes leaning off of first base. The throw allowed TJ Hopkins to score from second base.
Later in the inning, with two outs and the bases loaded, sophomore Riley Hogan struck out swinging. Hopkins doubled with two outs in the ninth inning but was stranded there when Carlos Cortes, who went 1-for-3 with three walks on the evening, popped up to the shortstop for the final out of the game.
"They wanted to do so well tonight for that big crowd and they were trying to do too much," Kingston said. "We talked about that. If you're at South Carolina, you have to be calm in the moment. We had veteran guys out there for a reason and I thought they were trying to do too much. They are a very confident group right now and we hit a ton of balls hard. You have to battle better with two strikes, especially with guys in scoring position."
South Carolina returns to the field and looks to even the series at one game apiece on Saturday. First pitch is set for noon with sophomore Cody Morris getting the start for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina looked to be out of the four-run fourth inning for VMI that ultimately turned the game on its head and allowed for the upset. Hill struggled for much of the game but got what seemed to be a fortuitous 2-6-3 double play to end the inning when Jake Huggins had ball hit off the handle of the bat and trickle out in front of the plate in fair territory.
The initial ruling was the ball hit the handle of the bat and with the ball going into fair territory, it is a live ball. Catcher Hunter Taylor made a quick play to start the double play as Huggins stood in the box shaking his hand.
VMI head coach Jonathan Hadra objected with the umpire saying the ball hit Huggins' hand, not the knob of the bat. The umpires conferred, agreed with the Keydets' skipper and overturned the play. Huggins was awarded first base for a hit by pitch.
After Hill struck out the next hitter, shortstop Nathan Eaton launched a three-run home run into the bullpen. Right fielder Matt Pita, the very next hitter, drove another fastball from Hill to almost the exact same spot. The runs put VMI on top 7-5 and it was the difference in the game.
"(The home plate umpire) told me it hit the hand," Kingston said. "I thought it clearly hadn't hit the hand but he told me after talking to the other guys, the key for changing the call, was the kid's hand looked bruised. I asked him how he didn't know it was previously bruised. He made the call and we had to live with it."