FAYETTEVILLE, AR (WIS & THE BIG SPUR) - By John Whittle, TheBigSpur.com
One win away. Junior LT Tolbert launched a grand slam in a five-run fifth inning and South Carolina got a pair of great performances on the mound to top Arkansas 8-5 and level the series at a game apiece. The teams will now meet one final time for a trip to the College World Series.
The Gamecocks (37-25) issued 11 free bases in a loss on Friday and it was their turn to be on the receiving end of some gifts as Razorbacks pitchers walked 10 with three of them resulting in runs.
Starting pitcher Cody Morris and reliever Sawyer Bridges combined for only one walk and held the Razorbacks (43-19) hitless in nine chances with runners in scoring position. Factor in the pitching performance, Tolbert's grand slam and solo shots from Justin Row and Hunter Taylor and the Gamecocks live to fight another day.
"We're just the same team every day, and that's what impresses me," first-year head coach Mark Kingston said.
"They realize this is a marathon. We've had some bumps in the road but the one thing you can control is do you come out and give it everything you've got. Whether we won or lost today, I knew that would be the case because I know this team. I know the kids on this team. I know they have bought in to maximizing their abilities. That's why I had no worries coming into today."
Morris has only allowed one earned run over his last 26 1/3 innings pitched, which spans four starts. He has 28 strikeouts in that time and three wins to his credit, including one on Sunday over the Razorbacks.
Tolbert vaulted his team-leading RBI total to 56 on the season and now has eight home runs. Row has seven and Taylor nine on the season.
"This is what we have waited our whole lives for, it's why we came to South Carolina," Tolbert said. "We were all getting recruited whenever they won back-to-back national championships, and personally, that's why I wanted to come here, to be a part of something like that. Now that we are here, we have 27 more outs before we can get there."
The only run that Morris allowed was unearned, which came in the top of the third inning. The Razorbacks, as the designated visitor team, benefitted from a trio of errors in the inning by the SEC's second-best defense. Third baseman Jonah Bride had a throwing error on a bunt single from Casey Martin that allowed him to reach second base. Then, second baseman Justin Row made a throwing error after a diving stop that allowed Martin to score.
Morris was able to get out of the inning after he tagged out Heston Kjerstad trying to score on a pitch that got away from Taylor. The sophomore put up zeroes over the next two innings before leaving the game after his 89-pitch performance.
"It was a big start for me," Morris said. "I wasn't thinking our backs were against the wall. I just wanted to go out there and compete, give my best effort and I feel like I competed really well. I pitched out of some jams and felt like I gave my team a chance to win."
South Carolina put up their five spot in the bottom of the fifth inning through the long balls by both Tolbert and Taylor. At that point, the Gamecocks had five home runs in the series to none for the Razorbacks. But an Arkansas hitter would leave the yard in the next inning.
"I kinda blacked out whenever I was rounding the bases, I don't even remember what happened," Tolbert said. "This is what I have been waiting my whole life for, to play in this moment. This is why I came to South Carolina. Now we are one game away, so tomorrow is what we are focused on now.
Senior Carson Shaddy, who has the bases-clearing double on Saturday to cement the win, launched a two-run home run in the sixth inning off of relief pitcher Graham Lawson to bring the score back within four runs. It was his 12th home run of the season.
"Graham wasn't quite as sharp as he normally is today," Kingston said. "Sawyer picked him up, but Graham has picked us up many times. To me, that's just what this team is. When one guy doesn't quite have it, the other guy picks him up. Tomorrow might be Graham's day."
After Lawson allowed a couple more singles in the inning, that's when Bridges entered to get the final out and keep the lead at 7-3. The Gamecocks would tack on a run in the bottom half of the frame when Madison Stokes scored on a wild pitch.
The five-run lead was enough for Bridges, who allowed a solo home run off the bat of Kjerstad and then an unearned run in the eighth on a sacrifice fly from Jax Biggers. The Razorbacks never threatened a big inning off of Bridges, however, who picked up his fifth save of the year.
The 3 1/3 innings for Bridges was his longest appearance of the season, which topped his appearance against Kentucky earlier this season by one out. He gave up two runs, but only one earned, on three hits. He struck out four and didn't walk anyone, which is why Kingston left the sophomore in the game.
"Against that lineup, you kind of have to change it up the second time through. I think I did a good job early of going away a little bit, and then later in the game I could go in. It's a really good lineup, so you've got to change things up on them. I just kinda let my adrenaline take over. I usually go shorter but the adrenaline just took over."
The Gamecocks have a bullpen that will be in good shape for the series-deciding game on Monday. Bridges is out after throwing 54 pitches and both Adam Hill and Morris are certainly out as well. Junior Eddy Demurias said after Saturday's game he would be ready to pitch on Monday.
And there is a Monday.
South Carolina and Arkansas will play a winner-take-all game for a berth in the College World Series on Monday. First pitch is set for 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN. The Razorbacks will be the home team.