GREENVILLE, N.C.—East Carolina has climbed the mountain that is winning two games in one day. Now they’ve got one more to go. The top seed and host of the Greenville Regional, ECU topped No. 2 seed South Carolina 8-6 to force a winner-take-all game Monday night, with a trip to Chapel Hill for a super regional against North Carolina on the line. The Pirates’ offense exploded early, but they had to hold on late as the Gamecocks mounted a furious rally in the ninth.
It’s always impressive when a team can pull off the two-wins-in-a-day routine, but ECU’s path is even more impressive when you consider this was actually its fourth game in two days. East Carolina’s opener Friday night against No. 4 seed Binghamton was rained out, forcing the teams to play at 10 a.m. Saturday morning. The Pirates won that game, but couldn’t match South Carolina in the nightcap, falling 12-2. They wouldn’t come up short Sunday.
"I told our guys just to believe," East Carolina coach Billy Godwin said. "I told them we didn’t have to win three games, we had to win one. And when we won Game One (against Binghamton), I said we’ve got to win one. So now we’re sitting here with one game to go and we’ve got to win one."
The Pirates eliminated Binghamton 16-9 in Sunday’s first game thanks in large part to two home runs by DH Kyle Roller. No more than a couple hours later, Roller continued his heroics, belting a three-run home run in the top of the first inning off Gamecocks starter Nolan Belcher to get the Pirates off on the right foot.
"The home run early really helped us out," ECU first baseman Brandon Henderson said. "We were tired. We were dead, but that pumped us up and pumped the crowd up and that really helped us out."
Roller’s home run set the tone, but there were contributors up and down the ECU lineup. In the fifth, Pirates right fielder Devin Harris made a leaping catch in front of the wall to rob South Carolina’s Adam Matthews of a home run. In the seventh, Henderson played hero himself, striking the biggest blow of the night, a grand slam down the left-field line that doubled ECU’s lead to 8-0 and knocked Belcher out of the game.
Pirates starter Kevin Brandt did his part as well. The freshman lefty held South Carolina’s potent offense off the board until the bottom of the seventh, by which point ECU already had a comfortable lead. Brandt finally ran out of gas in the ninth, giving up a two-run home run to Gamecocks catcher Justin Dalles to cut the lead to 8-4 and prompt Pirates coach Billy Godwin to make his first pitching change of the day after ECU’s Brad Mincey threw a complete game against Binghamton in the afternoon.
The boisterous Pirate fans were ready to celebrate, but the Gamecocks’ dormant offense finally awakened against Pirates closer Seth Simmons. The Gamecocks strung together three straight singles (two of them infield singles) to load the bases with one out. Pinch-hitter Brady Thomas doubled down the right-field line to bring home two runs, making the score 8-6 and putting the tying run in scoring position.
The air was suddenly filled with tension, but Simmons settled down, getting Whit Merrifield and pinch-hitter Jeffery Jones each to pop up to end the game and force a decisive game Monday. That Jones even hit was a mistake, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner admitted after the game. Tanner had removed left fielder DeAngelo Mack earlier in the game due to shin splints, putting then-DH Adam Matthews in left. That meant the Gamecock pitchers had to hit in Mack’s spot in the order, but Tanner said he didn’t think that spot would come up unless the game was already tied. Thus he had to employ Jones, a .228 hitter, as a pinch-hitter with the game on the line.
"We had a mulligan," Tanner said. "We used it. Now, we’ve got to play very well tomorrow night."