COLUMBIA, S.C.—The scene was a familiar one. Matt Price was on the mound, closing out a South Carolina victory against Florida.
It looked more like 2010 and 2011 for the two-time defending national champions than like the last week. Entering their Southeastern Conference series against top-ranked Florida, the Gamecocks had lost four of their last five games. But the pitching heroes of their Omaha runs held the Gators to four hits while the lineup broke out for seven runs to break a 2-2 tie.
The scoreboard showed a 9-3 Gamecocks victory Thursday night in front of an announced sell-out crowd of 8,242. It was the first win of the SEC season for South Carolina (17-5, 1-3), while it ended Florida's winning streak at 18. Both teams knew the game was better than that, at least until South Carolina broke things open in the seventh and eighth.
When it was still close, Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner turned to Price, the redshirt junior righthander who had made all five of his appearances as a starter in 2012. At 2-1, 3.71, Price had thrown well as a starter, but after losing three close games to Kentucky last weekend, Tanner said he gave plenty of thought to using Price out of the pen in this series. After all, Price had 30 saves the previous two seasons, including 20 last year.
"We told him all week, 'Seventh or eighth inning, if we have an opportunity, we're going (to you),' " Tanner said. "And he said, 'I'll be ready.' He pitched well early, not so well late . . .
"I was tempted (to take him out in the ninth). I turned to coach (Jerry) Meyers, and he wasn't tempted. I said, 'Well, I'm not the pitching coach,' so that's the end of that story."
The Gamecocks clearly play with confidence with Price and Michael Roth on the mound, and that was clear even against an offense as good as Florida's, which entered the series hitting .309 with 31 home runs in 21 games. Roth wasn't at his best but was plenty good, pitching 6 2/3 innings and giving up just four hits and three walks. Of his two runs, only one was earned and he struck out five. He left with the score knotted at 2 after walking Nolan Fontana in the seventh, and Price struck out Daniel Pigott—who had two of the Gators' four hits—to end the threat.
"He's a competitor," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said of Price. "I'm sure he was wanting to be in that situation again."
Florida will start junior lefthander Brian Johnson in Friday's game while the hosts likely will turn to sophomore righty Forrest Koumas, who appears to be flipping roles with Price. He's made all 11 of his appearances out of the bullpen this season, but Tanner hinted Price's days in the rotation could be over.
As was the case in Omaha last year, South Carolina's closer proved better than Florida's deep bullpen, and the Gamecocks had new offensive heroes. Lefthander Steven Rodriguez (3-1) gave up a leadoff single in the seventh to Evan Marzilli, and righthander Austin Maddox stumbled in relief of Rodriguez. He issued his first two walks of the season to load the bases, and freshman pinch-hitter Kyle Martin delivered the game-winning hit, a hard-hit chopper down the first-base line that turned into a two-run single. One out later, sophomore second baseman Erik Payne chased Maddox with a double to right, scoring two more for a 6-2 cushion.
Adam Matthews started a three-run rally in the eighth that salted things away with his third hit of the night, an important development for the Gamecocks. The senior missed last year's CWS with a hamstring injury and was off to an 11-for-57 start to this season, and Tanner dropped him to the ninth spot in the order. He singled in the second, then got the Gamecocks on the board when he hit a two-run homer to left off a hanging slider from Florida starter Hudson Randall.
"I've been putting in a lot of work in the cages lately and it paid off tonight," Matthews said. "I've been working to stay short (to the ball) . . . I've been struggling a little bit this year. I've taken the bad with the good. Hitting 1-hole, 9-hole, whatever it is, wherever I can contribute. I don't mind it down there."
The Gators insist they don't mind playing the Gamecocks, but they lost four of five to them last season and got this season's series off to a poor start Thursday. That's despite Randall setting a career high with 11 strikeouts in just 5 2/3 innings, including three whiffs to work out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the first.
"I thought both starting pitchers were outstanding," O'Sullivan said. "I thought the first six innings were as good as advertised . . . (Maddox) looked a little off; I don't think he'd walked a guy all year long. He didn't look like he has."
Matt Price, on the other hand, looked just as he has in Omaha the last two years. It looked right for the Gamecocks. It looked like victory.
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