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TJ Hopkins’ clutch homer helps South Carolina baseball knock off Kentucky


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TJ Hopkins’ clutch homer helps South Carolina baseball knock off Kentucky

May 26, 2017


Late Thursday night, TJ Hopkins picked up his phone and sent a message to South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook.

The sophomore outfielder told his coach that he had a bad game in the Gamecocks’ 10-2 win against Missouri, but felt good and wanted to change his fortunes Friday against Kentucky.

“He said, ‘Coach, put me in there and I’ll help you win,’” Holbrook said on SEC Now.

When the starting lineup came out, Hopkins’ name wasn’t in it. But he still had the biggest swing of the day, coming on the seventh inning to lift a three-run homer to lift South Carolina (35-24) to a 3-1 win against the No. 3-seeded Wildcats to advance to play in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

“It speaks volumes,” said closer Tyler Johnson on SEC Network. “It goes a long way. I said before I came down here and we came down here that we played every team close. Track record showed that. We’re showing it now. Hopefully, we can continue it and put good games under our belt.”

Suddenly, South Carolina’s once seemingly dead NCAA Tournament hopes appear much more alive after USC won three games in Hoover, Ala., for the first time since 2004. It has been a wild few days for the Gamecocks, who went into Hoover having lost eight straight SEC series.

But in the past four days, South Carolina has won three games, all against higher seeds. The Gamecocks opened the tournament with a 7-4 win against Vanderbilt, before falling to Kentucky 7-2 on Wednesday. A 10-2 win against Missouri on Thursday kept the Gamecocks alive, as did Friday’s win on a game-changing, seventh-inning swing from Hopkins.

The swing came against dynamo Kentucky reliever Logan Salow, who struck out 10 Gamecocks in 4.2 innings less than a month earlier in Columbia.

“He’s got a really good slider,” Hopkins said on SEC Now. “He was very effective against us when we played them in the regular season at home. I kept that in the back of my mind. I tried to hit the ball the other way. It was 2-0 and he hung one and I got the bat head out in front.”

Alex Destino led off the seventh by battling for a walk, as his impressive SEC Tournament continued. Christian Flint came to pinch run for Destino, advancing to second on a well-placed Jonah Bride sacrifice bunt. The Gamecocks put two on as Kentucky third baseman Luke Becker, who had three errors in the game, couldn’t cleanly come up with a hard-hit grounder off the bat of Jacob Olson, who dove into first ahead of Becker’s throw.

That set the stage for Hopkins, who pinch hit for catcher Hunter Taylor. The sophomore outfielder took two pitches from Salow, working into a 2-0 count before turning on a low pitch and sending it barely over the wall in left field.

South Carolina couldn’t crack Kentucky starter Justin Lewis until the sixth, when second baseman Justin Row perfectly executed a hit-and-run through the right side to put a pair of runners on base. The Gamecocks couldn’t take advantage, though, as Salow came on to strike out hot-hitting Carlos Cortes and induced an inning-ending Riley Hogan groundout.

Adam Hill put together an impressive start, striking out six in six innings and allowing three hits and one run.

Kentucky took a 1-0 lead early, as the first two runners of the game reached, with Tristian Pompey singling off Hill to lead off the game and Evan White reaching base as Olson couldn’t find a high fly ball in the afternoon sun.

Becker drove in the first run of the game on an RBI groundout, but that was all for Kentucky. Hill pitched out of a jam in the fifth, getting a strikeout and pumping his fist with two runners in scoring position. Relievers Josh Reagan, Reed Scott and Johnson finished out the game, shutting down the potent Kentucky offense for the final three innings.

Johnson came on with one down and one on in the ninth to close out the game three days after throwing more than 70 pitches against Vanderbilt.

But on an afternoon with just two hits, one swing from Hopkins proved enough for the Gamecocks to keep playing baseball for another day.

“I didn’t put him in there,” Holbrook said. “He helped us win anyway. It was a neat deal.



What’s next for South Carolina baseball

South Carolina will face LSU at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Line score

 

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