How South Carolina bats fueled Gamecocks to win over Alabama in SEC Tournament opener

Dalton Reeves turned on an 86 mph breaking ball, not so much swatting the stitches but mashing all the doubt surrounding South Carolina baseball. Bludgeoning the criticism and negativity around a baseball team that seemed to be dead.

It took until May 21 for South Carolina to hit a grand slam this year — and it would be hard to argue the Gamecocks have had a more important swing this year. Reeves’ grand slam propelled No. 10 seed USC to a 10-5 victory Tuesday over No. 7 Alabama in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Up next is a matchup against No. 2 seed Arkansas at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the double-elimination rounds.

“I’m glad our guys got rewarded for enduring some hardships,” said coach Mark Kingston. “It feels good to win, man. It really does. It’s hard to win in this league. Really hard.”

Added Alabama coach Rob Vaughn: “I didn’t think we gave anything away. I thought South Carolina took it today.”

The Gamecocks (34-21) arrived in Hoover on a six-game losing streak. They arrived without a set pitching rotation, instead just throwing a bunch of guys one time through the order. They arrived without having an extra-base hit in their last two games. They arrived with some fans calling for Kingston’s job while he assured fans there was no “doom and gloom” about the season.

Even against the Crimson Tide (33-22), South Carolina fell into a three-run hole after two innings Tuesday. Doom felt imminent and gloom didn’t seem far behind.

Reeves then provided a hallelujah in Hoover.

“To be able to come up in that situation and do that for the boys is a really fun time,” Reeves said. “We knew that we’re a good team and we’re going to take it one pitch at time.We got down, and nobody flinched.”

Earlier in the third inning, Gavin Casas and Ethan Petry each lifted solo shots out of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. A few smaller hits brought up Reeves with two outs and the bases loaded, which precedent has shown is about the furthest thing from guaranteed South Carolina runs.

Heading into Tuesday, South Carolina was hitting .248 with runners in scoring position and under .200 with the bases loaded. And all of that seemed like a moot point as the senior from Lugoff sent a ball just over the right-field fence.

South Carolina notched some later insurance — mainly thanks to catcher Cole Messina. The junior, who was recently named the second team All-SEC catcher — belted a solo home run in the fifth and followed it up an inning later with a 2-RBI double to all but blow the game open.

And, yet, his performance will get overshadowed. It’ll get pushed under Reeves’ grand slam and it’ll get buried under the highlight reel from reliever Chris Veach.

South Carolina came into Tuesday with the plan to start Dylan Eskew on the mound, let him get through the order one time then bring in a reliever, then start the process over again. That didn’t go to plan. Eskew pitched only 1.1 innings and reliever Matthew Becker allowed two earned runs in as many innings.

The Gamecocks needed someone to save the bullpen, to eat innings and keep the lead. Veach, the energetic reliever, delivered, used his wicked change-up to give up just three hits and no earned runs in nearly six innings of work.

“He was just so dominant, there was no reason to take him out,” Kingston said. “He helped us win today but, because he finished that game, he might have given us help in winning the next game and the next game after that.”

Next South Carolina baseball games

  • Who: USC vs. 2-seed Arkansas

  • When: 2 pm Wednesday

  • TV: SEC Network

  • South Carolina probable starter: Eli Jones (Jr. RHP) 3-4, 5.49 ERA, 60.2 IP, 18 BB, 49 SO

  • Arkansas probable starter: Ben Bybee (RHP) 2-1, 6.00 ERA, 24.0 IP, 9 BB, 31 SO

  • With a win Wednesday: USC would face the winner of LSU-Kentucky at 5:30 pm Thursday

  • With a loss Wednesday: USC would face the LSU-Kentucky loser at 10:30 a.m. Thursday

SEC Tournament scores, schedule

Tuesday, May 21 (single elimination)

Game 1: No. 11 LSU 9, No. 6 Georgia 1

Game 2: No. 10 South Carolina 10, No. 7 Alabama 5

Game 3: No. 8 Vanderbilt 6, No. 9 Florida 3

Game 4: No. 5 Mississippi State 2, No. 12 Ole Miss 1

Wednesday, May 22 (double elimination begins)

Game 5: No. 11 LSU vs. No. 3 Kentucky, 10:30 a.m. (SEC Network)

Game 6: No. 10 South Carolina vs. No. 2 Arkansas, approx 2 p.m. (SEC Network)

Game 7: No. 8 Vanderbilt vs. No. 1 Tennessee, approx 5:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

Game 8: No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 Texas A&M, approx 9 p.m. (SEC Network)