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COLUMBIA, S.C. — All around Founders Park, people could feel it. With South Carolina leading top-ranked LSU 7-3 after seven innings, needing just six more outs from its dynamite bullpen to clinch a huge series win against the No. 1 team in the country, the mood amongst the Gamecock faithful was festive. Multiple people asked me if South Carolina had a case for No. 1 in Monday’s rankings, assuming it finished out the win.
But you just can’t count out LSU, even when it looks bleak. And it couldn’t have looked much bleaker after LSU’s best reliever, Garrett Edwards, reacted in agony after walking in a run in the fifth inning, exiting with an apparent forearm injury while the bases were loaded with no outs.
“We brought the team up in the middle of the inning right there. And it’s like, look, nobody, I mean nobody feels worse about it than Garrett other than maybe his teammates because these guys genuinely care for each other a lot and they pull for each other. But the outside world, meaning South Carolina, the SEC, Division I baseball’s not going to feel sorry for us, and we can’t do anything about it right now,” LSU coach Jay Johnson said. “What we can do something about is the game and stick together and compete, and that’s what these guys do best.”
So lefthander Griffin Herring took over for Edwards and minimized the damage, inducing a double play and getting a strikeout to keep LSU within striking distance at 7-3. And three innings later, in the top of the eighth, two walks and a single loaded the bases for Gavin Dugas, who proceeded to tie the game up with a grand slam.
“In that moment, I know for myself I really wanted to lift Garrett up in that moment,” Dugas said. “It was really tough to see but we’re gonna pick him up for sure.”
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The Tigers picked him up in a big way Saturday. After stunning Founders Park with that grand slam in the eighth, LSU pushed across another run in the ninth on Cade Beloso’s RBI single to earn a stirring 8-7 win, leveling the series (the finale was canceled by rain). Us media types talk about “gut check” wins too often, but this was the epitome of a gut check win — trailing by four in the late innings, losing your best bullpen arm with an injury that did not look good, and still finding a way to win on the road against a top-10 opponent. That’s the kind of stuff champions are made of.
“Honestly, I’m really not surprised by what happened because it’s a testament to them, both in ability and character,” Johnson said. “That’s why we’re ranked No. 1 in the country. What you just saw in that game, on top of talent, is why we’re the No. 1 team in the country.”
I walked away from these two games in Columbia with the distinct impression that LSU is every bit the worthy of its No. 1 ranking, which it has held since the preseason. But I also walked away feeling confident that South Carolina is a bona fide top-five club with a very real chance to win the national championship. This felt like a heavyweight bout between two Omaha-caliber clubs.
Here are a few takeaways on both teams after a compelling two games in Columbia:
1. Ethan Petry is a monster.
I’m going to have an in-depth piece on South Carolina’s freshman sensation coming up this week, so I won’t go into too much detail in this space. It goes without saying that LSU’s Dylan Crews is the best player in college baseball, a generational talent who might as well be Mike Trout in a college baseball uniform — but Petry was the single most impressive player on the field this weekend.
In Thursday’s 13-5 South Carolina victory, Petry was a force of nature, showing the ability to turn on a 99 mph Paul Skenes fastball for a two-run homer to left-center, then staying back on a Micah Bucknam breaking ball and crushing it for a no-doubter grand slam in the fifth. He finished the game with eight RBIs. His size and strength were always evident, but the maturity of his approach is striking, and his presence is magnetic — he came across as gregarious, charming and exceedingly likable in the postgame press conference, like someone born for the big stage. Our midseason Freshman of the Year, Petry is now hitting .442/.504/.876 with 15 homers and 51 RBIs. He’s on pace for a freshman season for the ages
2. Weather robbed us from a stellar duel on Thursday.
Credit South Carolina for proving that Skenes is mortal, for the first time all season, by hitting a pair of home runs in the first three innings Thursday night. Braylen Wimmer also turned on 99 mph heat for a solo shot in the third, giving South Carolina 3-1 lead. But aside from those two homers, Skenes was utterly overpowering, striking out eight of the other 10 hitters he faced (another flew out, and the 10th reached via error). But his outing was limited to three by a weather delay in the fourth, which also cut short the outing of South Carolina righty Will Sanders.
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Talking to people around the program, it sounds like this was the best Sanders has looked all season, and that’s a very encouraging sign for the Gamecocks, especially with Noah Hall’s status uncertain due to a back issue. Sanders looked like a true ace for those first three innings, attacking at 93-95 with sharp, late bite on his mid-80s slider and plus fade on his 86-87 mph changeup, which was a true putaway pitch. He looked like a Day One draft pick, which has not been the case for most of this season. If Sanders can build on this and get back to peak form consistently, South Carolina is going to be even tougher to beat on weekends.
3. A tale of two bullpens.
We don’t yet know how serious Edwards’ injury will be — it didn’t look good, but Johnson indicated the forearm pain was closer to his hand than his elbow, which might be an encouraging sign. We’re also still awaiting word on the status of sidelined freshman fireballer Chase Shores, but LSU needs to prepare for the possibility that both of them will miss significant time.
The Tigers had planned to start Christian Little in the series finale, with Thatcher Hurd coming out of the bullpen after failing to record an out in his start last week. Hurd is obviously a crucial piece for LSU, and maybe a move to the bullpen will help unlock his enormous potential. I’m intrigued to see how Little fares in a starting role, but Johnson indicated that Herring could also be a factor in the rotation if needed. I certainly saw starter-caliber stuff from Herring, whose clean high three-quarters arm action produced 91-93 mph heat from the left side on Friday, along with an 82-85 slider that flashed plus and a useful changeup. He turned in three innings of two-hit, shutout relief, exiting after throwing 46 pitches.
“He’s a starter in the future, maybe meaning next week,” Johnson said. “We have to do it the right way with the pitch count thing, that’s why he’s out of the game there. If it was just pure execution, we’re leaving him in the game right there, but that’s where we’re at. Regardless, that’s a huge save against Tennessee — six, really seven up, seven down, we had a strike three/passed ball. And then a terrific performance today. He’s a star, he’s a future star.”
The same goes for freshman Gavin Guidry, who closed out Friday’s win with 1.2 scoreless innings, striking out the side in the ninth. A lean, athletic, projectable 6-foot-2, 173-pound righthander, Guidry showed up as a two-way talent with a middle infield pedigree, but the Tigers don’t have a spot for him on the field right now, so he’s making more of a mark on the mound, where he showed 93-95 heat along with a sharp two-plane slider at 84-87 mph on Friday. Guidry now has a 2.84 ERA and a 12-3 K-BB mark in 6.1 innings over six appearances, and he figures to remain a crucial piece of the bullpen going forward. Johnson also said he hopes lefthander Nate Ackenhausen will be back from his hamstring injury next week, giving LSU another key piece from the left side along with Riley Cooper, who pitched Friday.
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In a perfect world, LSU would love to have a healthy Edwards, Shores and Grant Taylor — it’s hard to fathom just how much of a juggernaut this team would be if not for Taylor’s season-ending injury early this spring. But if LSU has to make do without all three of those guys, this staff still has the depth to survive. It just needs some guys to step up, as they did Friday.
South Carolina, meanwhile, is in great shape in the bullpen, despite coughing up Friday’s late lead. Tip your cap to the Tigers for taking advantage of some uncharacteristic control issues from stalwart reliever Cade Austin (who entered Friday with just two walks all season and then issued two in the eighth inning) and got a big swing from Dugas. But Austin is still really good, with real stuff that plays in the SEC — he was 93-94 with a plus changeup and useful slider, and the pitch Dugas hit out was not a bad pitch, a 93 mph fastball down at the knees.
I loved what I saw from South Carolina righty Chris Veach, whose calling card is a rare high-spin changeup (in the 2400-2600 rpm range, as opposed to a typical changeup in the 1500-1800 range) with vicious dive and wicked deception. Veach could tell hitters it’s coming, and they still won’t be able to hit it; he throws it against righties and lefties alike, with supreme conviction. And it’s not like that’s his only good pitch; he was also 91-93 with the fastball, and his 83-86 mph slider is solid as well.
Eli Jones is another good weapon in the bullpen, with a 91-94 mph fastball and a knockout power slider at 85-88. He gave up a two-run homer on Thursday and then allowed the game-winning run Friday, so not a very good weekend — but before that he’s been superb this spring, and it’s easy to see why. His stuff is real. And James Hicks, who turned in 3.1 innings of shutout relief Thursday after weather cut Sanders’ outing short, is an outstanding sinkerballer with serious arm-side run on his 91-93 heater, along with the ability to spin two different breaking balls. He has a sparkling 30-6 K-BB mark in 31 innings along with a 2.32 ERA, and his ability to work multiple innings is valuable. And veteran Wesley Sweatt, who has pitched just four innings this year, was 94-96 in a 1-2-3 ninth on Thursday — another guy with big arm strength who could potentially take on a bigger role in the second half if needed.
I didn’t even see all of South Carolina’s bullpen weapons, but I saw enough. This is one of the best bullpens in the country — which makes it even more impressive that LSU was able to come back against it.
4. Lingering thoughts on the lineups.
My colleague Mike Rooney got in some hot water with the LSU fan base after saying in last week’s podcast that LSU’s defense was a bit of a concern for him, despite its gaudy fielding percentage (which led the nation after seven weeks). The Tigers didn’t have a great weekend defensively in Columbia, but they still lead the SEC with a .985 fielding percentage. Still, there is some validity to Rooney’s point. I think Dugas is an underrated playmaker at second base, where he’s really grown into the position, but the left side of LSU’s infield feels merely adequate. Shortstop Jordan Thompson and third baseman Tommy White both made some mistakes on defense this weekend, and given Thompson’s history, an occasional erratic throw will creep up from time to time — which is why LSU’s defense is so much better with Tre’ Morgan manning at first base and saving everyone from throwing errors. Morgan is the best defensive first baseman in the country, but the Tigers are starting him in left field right now so they can get Jared Jones in the lineup at first base and Beloso in at DH. Beloso brings mature veteran at-bats and lefthanded power that Johnson values, and Jones is a physical freak with enormous righthanded juice, so it makes sense that the Tigers are trying to maximize their offensive potential. In a way, the best defense (and the best bullpen) is an explosive offense that can erupt at a moment’s notice, as it did with those four runs in the eighth inning Friday. And the fact that LSU has the Morgan-to-first move in its back pocket is helpful; with Paxton Kling and Josh Pearson along with Crews, the Tigers have three athletic outfielders they can deploy any time they choose to put Morgan at first, whether in the starting lineup or as a mid-game adjustment.
Ultimately, I don’t think LSU’s defense is quite as good as its fielding percentage suggests, but I also don’t think it’s even close to a problem, at least right now. But it’s worth keeping an eye on in the second half; Johnson and his staff will have some interesting decisions to make when the pressure mounts in the postseason, weighing offensive upside vs. a lockdown defense.
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As for the Gamecock defense — I think it is perfectly sufficient but not elite. Wimmer has adjusted well to shortstop, where his range and actions play well and his arm is serviceable enough. Talmadge LeCroy, who came in as a catcher, is a gamer who looks very steady at third, and Michael Braswell brings standout defense to second base while Will McGillis is out. South Carolina ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in fielding percentage at .975, but its defense doesn’t feel like a major liability — especially if the lineup keeps mashing the way it has to this point.
The emergence of Petry, catcher Cole Messina and first baseman Gavin Casas as power-hitting stars has done so much to change the outlook for these Gamecocks, giving them the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with the likes of LSU and Florida. South Carolina can’t quite match LSU for lineup length or sheer star power — the quartet of Dugas-Morgan-Crews-White is probably the best top of the lineup in college baseball. But the Gamecocks rank eighth in the country in scoring at 8.7 runs per game (LSU is second at 10.4 runs per game), and that feels sustainable.
The combination of South Carolina’s power-hitting offense, its elite bullpen, and the upside of a healthy and confident Sanders/Jack Mahoney/Hall trio in the rotation makes the Gamecocks very dangerous indeed. This is a complete ballclub.
“I think as we’ve been doing all year, we’ve just been showing the country that we’re a really good baseball team in all areas,” South Carolina coach Mark Kingston said on Thursday night. “We can pitch, we can hit, we have power, we have speed, we play good defense on most days. I just think every day we get a chance to prove, it’s just one more brick in the wall, that hey, here’s another brick showing that we’re pretty darn good. We don’t put too much emphasis on any one day, but I think that the total picture of what we’re doing right now is hard to ignore.”