The Gamecocks dropped their tournament opener for the second year in a row Wednesday, falling to fifth-seeded Eastern Kentucky 11-2 at The Ballpark at Jackson.
The Colonels (21-32) rocked three JSU pitchers for 18 hits, including four doubles and three home runs, to snap a six-game OVC Tournament losing streak and move into the winner’s bracket for the first time since 2010. Their starter, Brent Cobb, who the Gamecocks (32-25) roughed up in their regular-season series opener two weeks ago, scattered nine hits over eight innings.
“I think they whipped us in every way that you can whip us,” JSU coach Jim Case said. “They scored three on us in the third and it just seemed like it kind of ignited them.
“There have been a lot of times during the year where when that happened with us we’ve been able to throw up zeroes and give ourselves a chance to come back. We couldn’t do that today. They beat us in every way you could beat us, but you also have to take your hat off to them because I thought their pitcher did a really nice job.”
A year ago here the Gamecocks lost their tournament opener to Southeast Missouri, then won their next two before being eliminated by Austin Peay on a wild pitch in the 11th inning. Before that, they had won all eight of their OVC Tournament openers — by an average margin of nearly eight runs — including three that came decisively against EKU (15-0, 8-1 and 19-7).
Now, a team with lesser tournament experience than the one a year ago will be looking to avoid elimination before either of the top two seeds play their first game today against third-seeded Belmont. Junior right-hander Taylor Shields (8-2, 3.75) is scheduled to start in what will be their only game of the day.
“I want to look not so much as what’s going to happen the rest of the tournament but what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Case said. “In my mind there were three opportunities during the year where I felt like we had an opportunity to throw up our hands and say, ‘Uncle.’
“I felt like every time we got our backs to the wall I think we responded pretty well. So, just looking at it from the game tomorrow I think we’ll have an outstanding chance to come out and play really well. If you ask at this point do you think you have an opportunity to win the tournament, I think it’d be extremely hard to do. But the only way you can do that is win one game at a time, so there’s no reason for us to even worry about that.”
The Colonels jumped out to a 6-0 lead against JSU starter Casey Antley. Sean Hagan hit a three-run homer in the third inning that opened with a leadoff walk. Kyle Nowlin, one of three Colonels with three hits, delivered a two-run single in the fourth and Antley was charged with the run in the fifth after leaving with runners at second and third.
“My best didn’t beat their guy’s best,” Antley said. “I gave it my all; that’s about all I can do. The baseball gods don’t like leadoff walks; it didn’t turn out in our favor. It’s one of those things that can’t happen and I have to do better. Hopefully, I get a chance to rebound.”
Later in the game, Bryan Solomon hit a solo homer and Luke Wurzelbacher hit a three-run homer in the ninth after the Colonels reloaded following the last of the eight double plays the two teams turned in the game. Every player in the EKU lineup had at least one hit.
“I thought that was our best approach to the plate all season,” EKU coach Jason Stein said. “We talked a little bit about it yesterday at our practice. Casey is a heavy mix guy and if we use the middle of the field with him, look for pitches, that type approach enabled us to put up all those hits and get him out of the game, because he really shut us down the first game in conference play. So, hats off to our hitters to make an adjustment.”
The Gamecocks mounted their only threat in the home fifth when they put together four straight hits at the bottom of the order to score two runs, with Gavin Golsan and Stephen Bartlett driving them home. But Cobb then retired the top three hitters in the lineup in order to avoid further damage.
Eddie Mora-Loera had three hits for JSU, extending his hitting streak to a season-best 12 games, while Bartlett had two.
“We were scrapping,” Bartlett said. “We were fighting, staying within ourselves and passing the bat back to the next guy. We were doing our job. Losing the first game isn’t what you want, but we like to compete. I think we’re going to scratch and claw through it.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.