Riding its longest winning streak of the season and playing with plenty of momentum, the Coastal Carolina baseball team came to South Carolina on Tuesday night hoping to make a statement of sorts.
That didn’t necessarily happen and coach Gary Gilmore felt the Chanticleers’ 4-2 loss to the No. 8-ranked Gamecocks showed his guys the gap they still have to close with projected national contenders like that.
But for their part, the players left South Carolina’s Founders Park reaffirmed in their belief that they can indeed match up and beat such teams, even if it didn’t work out on this night.
“We’re right on track where we need to be. It was a good test,” freshman reliever Austin Kitchen said afterward. “At the end of the day we have a little bit of work to do, but we can definitely beat a team like this. We played very well – just a couple hard situations that didn’t come through for us. If they come through, we end up getting a win or put in different situations.”
Added senior right fielder Connor Owings: “We had a lot of opportunities we didn’t take advantage of and we grinded out at-bats. Things just didn’t go our way, but I feel we could have played a lot better.”
Owings went 2-for-3 with an RBI and run scored and G.K. Young finished 2-for-4 for the Chants (20-10), who managed just five hits in the game.
Dom Thompson-Williams was 2-for-4 with an RBI for the Gamecocks (25-5), DC Arendas finished 2-for-3 and Jonah Bride and TJ Hopkins also picked up RBIs in the win.
Meanwhile, Taylor Widener (1-1) went five innings for the win, giving up two runs (one earned) on just two hits and a walk with five strikeouts while Josh Reagan earned his eighth save with two scoreless innings.
The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak for Coastal Carolina, which had won 13 of its previous 15 overall.
“I [told the players], ‘For us to go where we’re trying to go, we have to go through a group of gentlemen like that over there so we’ve got to get better,’” Gilmore said. “I think it helps coming in to a place like this and North Carolina and Georgia Tech. We’re going to have to get better. Our margin for error in making pitches to hitters and at-bats and everything, we’re not playing someone that gives us a second opportunity. We’re only going to get one and we have to capitalize on it.”
After letting South Carolina build a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, the Chants settled down and made it a tight game most of the way.
Down 3-0 after four innings, Coastal Carolina started chipping away as Owings led off the fifth with a bloop single and came around to score two batters later on a Gamecocks error.
The next inning Anthony Marks led off with a walk, and after a pitching change Michael Paez rifled a ball down the third base line that could have been a game-changer for the Chants had Bride not made a terrific stop and throw to first for the out. Marks, who advanced to second on the play, eventually came in to score on a two-out RBI single by Owings to make it a 3-2 game.
“The kid at third base made a [heck] of a play,” Gilmore said. “We’re second and third [if it goes through] and if it kicks around we might score on that play. ... It is what it is. You tip your hat to them, they’re a very good team. They’re a little bit better than we are right now and we have to get better.”
The Chants had stranded a runner on third in that fifth inning, runners at first and second in the sixth and had another chance in the seventh with runners at second and third before Paez popped out to first base after battling through a long at-bat.
The Gamecocks pushed their lead to 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh after shutdown closer Mike Morrison came in with runners on second and third and had a pitch in the dirt get by catcher Matt Beaird to allow a run to score.
That was all the cushion the hosts would need as Reagan took care of the rest for South Carolina, allowing only one base runner over the final two innings.
“We didn’t get the hits when we needed them,” Owings said. “Top  team, that’s the kind of teams we’re going to have to beat if we want to get where we’re going so we just have to keep getting better daily.”
The biggest positive for Coastal Carolina on Tuesday night was the performance of the bullpen.
Sophomore starter Zack Hopeck (1-2) went 3 1/3 innings and was charged with three runs on four hits and two walks while picking up two strikeouts.
Kitchen, the rookie left-hander, took over with runners on first and third and one out in the fourth and allowed one run to score on Hopkins’ flyout to centerfield. But he was impressive overall, going 3 1/3 innings while giving up two hits, no walks, one hit batter and officially allowing one run on the inherited runner that scored on Morrison’s wild pitch.
“We’re going to need that kid in the long run. He’s been throwing great out of the pen so far and we just need him to keep being himself, spotting the ball up, getting the guys out he usually gets out, getting ground balls when he needs to,” Owings said of Kitchen.
Kitchen now has a 1.86 earned-run average over 19 1/3 innings with a sterling 19-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and clearly wasn’t intimidated by the environment at South Carolina..
“It’s a little bit different of a setting and atmosphere, but at the end of the day we play in a ballpark with the same background, same amount of people and I’ve been put in jams like that before so nothing new,” he said.
The Chants will look to start a new win streak as they head to Radford for the start of a three-game Big South series on Friday.
Overall, Gilmore wasn’t bemoaning the loss Tuesday night too much while just hoping his players realize they still have some growing to do this season.
“We had some opportunities. They made pitches and in all honesty we had the guys in our lineup you want up there. It’s just the game of baseball. They got us out,” he said. “I don’t know what I really take away from it other than there are things we need to get seriously better at.”
NOTES: Owings extended his hitting streak to nine games. ... Zach Remillard snapped a streak of 21 straight games reaching base. It was only the third game all season he hasn’t reached base and just his fifth game without a hit. ... South Carolina improved to 19-1 at home this season. The Gamecocks pushed their lead in the all-time series between the teams to 14-6 after losing at Coastal Carolina last year. ... The official paid attendance was announced as 7,275, but there were far less fans in the seats on this chilly night.