COLUMBIA, S.C.—As Kyle Martin’s drive arced through the Columbia night, it felt the inevitable was happening.
South Carolina trailed upstart Maryland 4-1 in the 6th inning at Carolina Stadium when Martin, the Gamecocks’ first baseman, came up with two men on and drilled a hanging slider from Mike Shawaryn deep to right field. When it went over the wall, the game would be tied and the Gamecocks on their way to disposing of the pesky Terrapins, as they had so many visitors before them.
Only it didn’t.
Martin’s ball bounced off the yellow line at the top of the wall and stayed in play. For 28 straight NCAA tournament home games, when South Carolina needed a big hit or to make a big pitch, it did. And it if needed a ball like Martin’s to sneak over the wall, it did. Until Saturday. Maryland, a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1971, held off everything the Gamecocks and their Columbia postseason aura could throw at it, winning 4-3 and handing South Carolina its first home loss in NCAA play since 2002.
“It’s a matter of doing what you gotta do to get to the end and hanging in there,” Maryland coach John Szefc said. “We did a great job of hanging in there.”
Shawaryn epitimized that phrase. The Terrapins’ offense staked him to an early 4-0 lead, taking advantage of some Gamecocks sloppiness, but Maryland didn’t score after the second inning, thanks to South Carolina reliever Taylor Widener. It was a nice cushion to have, but there was no question South Carolina wouldn’t go away quietly.
The Gamecocks scored once in the fourth to cut the lead to 4-1. Martin’s ball in the sixth, though it didn’t go out, did bring in another run to make it 4-2. A sac fly later in that inning slashed Maryland’s lead to one. The ever-boistrous Gamecocks fans were in full throat, trying to will their team back into the game.
Shawaryn hung in there. The freshman, pitching on the biggest stage of his young career, steeled his nerves and struck out Connor Bright swinging to end the inning, stranding Martin at second and keeping Maryland in front. Shawaryn would go on to claim his 11th win of the season, a school record.
“Even though we’re the opposing school, this is the type of atmosphere you dream to play in in these type of situations,” Shawaryn said. “One of the big things is to embrace it, but also to put it out of your mind. I think a big part of what happened was just calming down, slowing the game down and going pitch by pitch.”
“Mike Shawaryn is tough,” Szefc said. “He is very very tough. He’s one of the toughest young guys I’ve ever been around in my life.”
Shawaryn gave way to the bullpen in the seventh, as junior Bobby Ruse came in and wriggled out of a two-on, one-out jam. When the tying run got to second base with one out in the eighth, it was time for sophomore closer Kevin Mooney. Mooney would strand that runner at third, but there were three more outs to get—the three that are always the hardest.
Sure enough, Tanner English started the Gamecocks ninth with a single to right. Two hitters later, Max Schrock blooped a single to left with English on the move, advancing to third. Men on the corners. One out. Tying run 90 feet away. Carolina Stadium at full volume again. In stepped South Carolina No. 3 hitter Joey Pankake.
“I think I got to 2-2 and I saw (catcher Kevin Martir) put down another fastball, an away fastball,” Mooney said. “I was fully committed. I was fully behind it, and I knew if it was going there, it wasn’t going to be over the plate, and it ended up being a few inches off the plate. I was just fully committed to the pitch and hit the location. He hit a nice routine two-hopper.”
Pankake bounced Mooney’s fastball right to second baseman Brandon Lowe, who started a game-ending, 4-6-3 double play. A routine way to end a win that was anything but routine.
“The way that a team comes back on you, normally, is with walks, hit batsmen and errors,” Szefc said. “As I look at this, Ruse and Mooney did not walk one batter. I don’t care who you’re playing, if you’re forcing them to put the ball in play and earn what they get—and if they do it then you gotta tip your cap—but, we didn’t give them any freebies. It was just a matter of just holding the line, man. Bend but don’t break.”
The Terrapins never broke. In all, nine Gamecock hitters came to bat with the tying run in scoring position from the sixth inning on. None got hits.
So now the Terps are a win away from doing something they’ve never done: win a regional. For as momentous as Saturday’s win was, there’s more work to do. South Carolina’s streak is over, but the regional isn’t.
“We’re really happy to be sitting where we’re sitting at this point in this regional,” Szefc said, “but it is just the second win and we’re not here just to get two wins. We’re here to finish this thing off and obviously that’s our mindset going into (Sunday).”
The Terrapins will await the winner of Sunday afternoon’s elimination game between South Carolina and No. 4 seed Campbell. After South Carolina won its regional opener on Friday, Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook was asked about the streak in the postgame press conference. He warned that it would end eventually, that the day would come that South Carolina would have to play a losers’ bracket game in Carolina Stadium.
Just no one expected that day to be today.