Messina delivers more heroics, but LSU rallies to edge South Carolina at SEC Tournament

The night should have belonged to Cole Messina.

In the first three games of this SEC Tournament, the South Carolina catcher has put together one of the most Herculean stretches conceivable by a baseball player: 12 at-bats, eight hits, an SEC Tournament-record 14 RBIs and four home runs.

On Thursday, he sent a grand slam to the moon in the third inning. In the sixth, he came up again with the bases loaded and South Carolina down one.

At long last, Messina came back to Earth. He didn’t send this ball to a new stratosphere, but merely poked an outside fastball to right-center field. Two runs scored. The Gamecocks had the lead. Messina stood on first base pounding his chest.

“That’s real hitting right there,” LSU coach Jay Johnson said of Messina’s two-RBI single. “Cole Messina is a beast. Like, holy cow. I don’t know where to start trying to get him out right now. He single-handedly almost beat us tonight.”

And, yet, it wasn’t enough in South Carolina’s 11-10 loss to LSU. The Gamecocks now face Kentucky at 4 p.m. Friday (SEC Network) in an elimination game.

With every Messina moment Thursday came a Tiger answer.

All night, the Tigers’ next move felt inevitable because, well, the South Carolina catcher could only do so much.

Within minutes of Messina’s grand slam, LSU needed just four batters to score four runs and tie the game. When the junior from Summerville gave South Carolina the lead with his clutch single in the sixth, it was clear the Tigers were going to make a charge.

Thursday was one of those brutal tournament nights for South Carolina when you’re forced to throw a bullpen game and your best bullpen arms can’t pitch. South Carolina came into the game with few options, already exhausting its best pitchers to beat Alabama and Arkansas.

The Gamecocks started freshman Tyler Pitzer, who allowed two earned runs. Jake McCoy came out of the pen and gave up two home runs. Michael Polk gave up more hits (3) than he recorded outs (2). Connor McCreery was the best arm of the night for USC, giving up no earned runs in almost three innings.

Then came a surprise. Just two days after throwing 67 pitches against Alabama, Chris Veach ran out of the bullpen in the eighth inning. South Carolina led 10-7. Two runs quickly scored on a Gavin Casas error, but Veach exited the frame with the lead still intact.

“He made it very clear that if we got in the right spot that he felt he had probably three to four outs in him,” South Carolina coach Mark Kingston said.

An inning later, though, the veteran South Carolina righty gave up two quick singles. A few batters later, Michael Braswell III — the former South Carolina shortstop — became the hero, lining an RBI single into left field to give LSU the lead for good.

In all, LSU scored four runs in the game’s final two innings, with two of those runs unearned.

Which leads us to the bugaboo that bit South Carolina on Thursday: errors. The Gamecocks’ defense, which has struggled all year, committed four errors on the night.

The costly ones came in the eighth inning, beginning when third baseman Talmadge LeCroy fielded a grounder and threw the ball into the wall. A few batters later, with South Carolina needing just one out to escape the inning, a grounder skirted through the legs of first baseman Gavin Casas. Two runs scored. LSU pulled within one. The Tigers had hope.

“They made no errors, we made four. Clearly that was the difference in the game,” Kingston said. “The ball to Gavin, it was almost like a cue ball, and he did everything he could to get down and get in front of him, and it snuck through him..”

It was South Carolina’s 53rd error in its 57th game of the season and the first time since late-February that the Gamecocks committed four errors in a game.

The blunders kept the door open just long enough for Braswell to step to the plate in the ninth, to ruin the night of his former squad.

“I couldn’t find a moment where I’ve been happier in the sport of baseball, honestly,” Braswell said. “I have respect for the South Carolina program, but I’m an LSU Tiger.”

SEC Tournament scores, schedule

Thursday, May 23

Game 9: No. 3 Kentucky 9, No. 2 Arkansas 6

Game 10: No. 1 Tennessee 7, No. 4 Texas A&M 4

Game 11: No. 11 LSU 11, No. 10 South Carolina 10

Game 12: No. 8 Vanderbilt 4, No. 5 Mississippi State 1

Friday, May 24

Game 13: No. 10 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Kentucky, 4 p.m. (SEC Network)

Game 14: No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 1 Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

Saturday, May 25 (Semifinals)

Game 15: No. 11 LSU vs. Game 13 winner, 1 p.m.

Game 16: No. 8 Vanderbilt vs. Game 14 winner, 4:30 p.m.

Sunday, May 26 (Final)

Game 17: Game 16 winner vs. Game 15 winner, 3 p.m.