South Carolina making moves in Hoover, takes down 2-seed Arkansas at SEC Tournament

Welcome to Hoover, where there’s a new invasive species terrorizing this place. It is a 6-foot, 230-pound Moose — furry and gray. Folks have tried to get this monster out, tried every technique and every conceivable option to contain him, and yet he still walks like this is his home.

South Carolina catcher Cole “Moose” Messina has run rampant at the 2024 SEC Tournament. He’s been the best player in Hoover so far, clobbering and mashing his way into the nightmares of opposing fans forced to root against him.

After lifting a solo home run out of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in the Gamecocks’ Tuesday win over Alabama, Messina almost single-handedly was responsible for No. 10 seed South Carolina’s 6-5 victory over No. 2 Arkansas on Wednesday.

“(We) had a rough six games before this tournament and turned it all around in two games,” Messina said, “and feel like we’re back to who we are and can make a run.”

Messina laced an RBI single up the middle in the third inning. In the fifth, the Moose from Summerville launched a two-run dinger that put the Gamecocks back up two. At that point of the SEC Tournament, Messina was 5 for 6 with two long balls and six RBIs.

“He’s the heart and soul of our team,” South Carolina coach Mark Kingston said of Messina. “And when the heart and soul of your team is playing that well, it just allows everybody else to kind of follow suit.”

And his magnum opus was still to come.

With the score tied in the ninth, Messina came up with everyone in Hoover already on Moose alert. Surely this guy couldn’t create any more havoc?

Think again.

On the first pitch Messina launched a breaking ball over the center field fence for his 19th jack of the year. The Gamecocks (35-21) erupted out of the dugout in laughter, looking at each other with big eyes and bigger grins. No way he did it again. No way!

Yes way. And thank goodness because South Carolina wasn’t looking ahead. And you’re probably thinking, Well, duh, thanks for the cliche.

But tournaments bring different philosophies.

On Wednesday, Arkansas (43-13) chose not to throw its ace, Hagen Smith, deciding to save him for later during the SEC Tournament — perhaps for an elimination game. South Carolina, meanwhile, started Eli Jones and brought in reliever Ty Good out of the bullpen. It seemed expected the Gamecocks would roll with their bullpen then start Garrett Gainey the next day regardless of Wednesday’s outcome.

Instead, in the seventh inning, out of the bullpen with his blond locks flopping as he ran came Gainey — tasked with getting the Gamecocks out of a two-on, no-out jam. And, he sort of did. Gainey allowed a double and a sac fly, giving up two runs but keeping the game knotted at four.

“Once we had the lead, we decided, OK, we’re going to give the ball to Garrett,” Kingston said. “It’s going to be a little bit longer outing, but hopefully he can take us home. That’s exactly what he did.”

The inning kept South Carolina from disaster, kept the Gamecocks on the brink of winning two SEC Tournament games for the first time since 2017. It kept the door open for Messina to be the hero.

At the moment, Messina is inevitable. It looks like he’s hitting a beach ball with a tennis racket. How well exactly is he seeing it? Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said postgame that Messina was sitting on a breaking ball. He seemed certain.

Actually, Messina said, he was looking for a fastball — “I sold out for a fastball,” he noted — and just tried to make his best swing.

So basically Messina guessed wrong and still drove the ball over 400 feet out of the yard.

“Right now he’s completely synched up,” Messina said. “His timing is where it needs to be. And when he does that, his swing is in the zone for a long time, which is exactly what allows (him to do) what he was just talking about.”

Perhaps the next technique coaches should try out: Just give the Moose a free pass.

South Carolina vs. LSU

Next: South Carolina advances face No. 11 LSU at 5:30 p.m. Thursday on SEC Network.

Probable starting pitchers:

South Carolina: Tyler Pitzer (Fr. RHP) 4-1, 4.66 ERA, 38.2 IP, 20 BB, 53 SO

LSU: Thatcher Hurd (Jr. RHP) 2-4, 6.49 ERA, 34.2 IP, 21 BB, 43 SO

SEC Tournament scores, schedule

Wednesday, May 22 (double elimination begins)

Game 5: No. 11 LSU 11, No. 3 Kentucky 0 (8 innings)

Game 6: No. 10 South Carolina 6, No. 2 Arkansas 5

Game 7: No. 8 Vanderbilt 13, No. 1 Tennessee 4

Game 8: No. 5 Mississippi State 5, No. 4 Texas A&M 3

Thursday, May 23

Game 9: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Kentucky, 10:30 a.m. (SEC Network)

Game 10: No. 4 Texas A&M vs. No. 1 Tennessee, 2 p.m. (SEC Network)

Game 11: No. 11 LSU vs. No. 10 South Carolina, 5:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

Game 12: No. 8 Vanderbilt vs. No. 5 Mississippi State, 9 p.m. (SEC Network)