South Carolina baseball ousts Kentucky to reach SEC Tournament semifinals

Friday provided one of those rare baseball games where you start to question what sport is being played.

For so much of South Carolina and Kentucky’s SEC Tournament matchup, it felt like the victor wouldn’t necessarily be the squad that played the best, but the one that made the fewest mistakes.

Miraculously, the Gamecocks’ errors did not cost them another game. South Carolina overcame its poor defense with enough offense to earn a 6-5 win over the Wildcats (40-14).

With the victory, the Gamecocks advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday with the chance to get revenge over LSU, which beat USC on Thursday night.

South Carolina won its third game of this SEC Tournament despite recording 10 errors this week — including three on Friday. Kentucky, meanwhile, walked eight and hit three batters.

A day after South Carolina (36-22) committed four errors in its loss to the Tigers, the Gamecocks’ defense nearly lost them another game.

“It’s a little frustrating, yeah, because we know how good we can be, and we usually are,” South Carolina coach Mark Kingston said. “We fielded — I believe it was .979 in the league this year, so it has not been a problem for us.”

In the second inning, second baseman Parker Noland couldn’t field a routine grounder. A second later, the Wildcats laid down a bunt that catcher Dalton Reeves couldn’t corral (and was ruled a base hit). Both runs scored.

In the fourth inning, a picture-perfect double-play ball to Noland somehow didn’t lead to a single out. Noland flipped the ball to shortstop Will Tippett, who somehow, some way just didn’t touch second base (second error of the day). So the runner at second was safe. And because Tippett’s throw to first was late, the batter was safe, too.

Not long after, third baseman Gavin Casas couldn’t get in front of a hard-hit ball — the third error of the afternoon. Another run scored. Heading to the fifth frame, Kentucky led 4-3.

This was the afternoon that make baseball purists want to look away. South Carolina couldn’t field a grounder, and then, all of a sudden, Kentucky couldn’t throw a strike.

Wildcats starter Mason Moore was still on the bump in the fifth inning, which didn’t start great for the Wildcats. South Carolina’s Tippett, a sub-.200 hitter with little power, destroyed his fifth long ball of the season. But Moore settled down, retiring the next two batters. Then the wheels fell off.

Moore issued a five-pitch walk to Blake Jackson. He intentionally walked Cole Messina. He plunked Noland. On the next pitch, he hit Kennedy Jones. South Carolina took the lead without doing anything.

“The thing that Mason did today was he just walked and hit too many guys,” said Kentucky caoch Nick Minigione.

Kentucky decided enough was enough, pulling Moore for senior Cameron O’Brien. You have one guess as to what happened next.

Yep. Another walk. Another free base. Another run for the Gamecocks. Heck, at the rate things were going, the Gamecocks might’ve run-ruled Kentucky if they never took the bat off their shoulder.

Regardless, South Carolina will take the victory.

“I don’t think (the response) says anything,” Kingston said, “other than what we already know, that I’ve been preaching to everybody that is willing to listen, that wants to listen. This is a good baseball team, one of the best in the country.”

Sure, advancing in the SEC Tournament is nice. Perhaps it’ll bolster the Gamecocks’ NCAA Tournament seeding. (USC is currently projected a No. 2 seed in the Clemson Regional.) But, best of all, it’ll give South Carolina another shot at LSU and former Gamecock Michael Braswell III, who transferred to Baton Rouge.

The Gamecocks will be in OK shape pitching-wise for Saturday. It’s expected USC could start Garrett Gainey and then have trusted arms Eli Jones and Ty Good able to come out of the bullpen.

One guy who won’t pitch is Parker Marlatt, the freshman who exhausted himself to help USC beat Kentucky. A week removed from giving up a grand slam to Tennessee, he threw 57 pitches in 3.2 innings of work, allowing two hits and one earned run.

As the Gamecocks get ready for the NCAA Tournament, Marlatt might become more of a staple. Is he daunted? Ha.

“I throw a big curveball, obviously you guys know that, with a big ride carry fastball,” he said. “So when I have those two working for me, I’m pretty much un-hittable.”