HOOVER, Alabama -- Led by the strong pitching of starter James Hicks and reliever Cade Austin, 6-seed South Carolina dispatched 11-seed Georgia, 9-0, in the win-or-go-home opening game of the SEC Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Met.
Hicks pitched the first 6.2 innings before giving way to Austin, who closed out the game with a similarly dominant 2.1 innings of shutout relief.
Afterward, Hicks credited his sinker and the game plan provided by pitching coach Austin Parker for his success -- stunning in that it came in his first career SEC start.
"I've been working on the sinker, making sure I can get it in on people, and today I just went out there and reminded myself to stay within myself, not to try to do anything extra, just relax and throw," Hicks said. "And then Coach Parker came up with the game plan. He's really good at scouting, and that (plan) was what to throw everyone. I just trusted him and tried to execute each pitch."
Braylen Wimmer, Talmadge LeCroy and Tippett contributed two hits apiece to the Gamecocks' attack, but it was their pitching that shined the most.
Hicks gave up just four hits, walked two and struck out six in his stint, giving way to Austin with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh. Austin got South Carolina out of that jam by striking out the first batter he faced, and then went on to finish the rest of the game while allowing only two more baserunners -- on a walk and a single -- while fanning two more.
Coach Mark Kingston said that injuries to others produced the opportunity for Hicks to make his first conference start on the big stage at Hoover.
"The reason why James was in the bullpen earlier in the year was not because he wasn't capable of being a weekend starter," Kingston said. "It was because we just probably had one of the best, deepest pitching staffs in the country. And the best role for James to help our team at that time was for him to be a swing man ... He's been everything we could hope for.
"Now that we're in the position we are from an injury standpoint, he got the opportunity to start an SEC game. He came through with flying colors like we thought he probably would. I'm really glad he did."
South Carolina got on the board first in the bottom of the second inning. Ethan Petry and LeCroy started the rally with back-to-back singles. After Gavin Casas hit into a fielder's choice for the first out, Tippett singled to left, loading the bases.
After Dylan Brewer struck out swinging for the second out, Georgia opted for a pitching change, bringing on righthander Dalton Rhadans for lefthanded starter Jaden Woods to face righthanded hitter Evan Stone. But Stone drilled a line drive to left on a 2-1 delivery from Rhadans, scoring a pair to put the Gamecocks up, 2-0.
LeCroy got another South Carolina rally started when he led off the bottom of the fourth with another single. That triggered an inning in which Georgia would make two more pitching changes to no avail, as the Bulldog hurlers surrendered RBI singles to Brewer and Michael Braswell before walking in a third run, extending the Gamecocks' advantage to 5-0.
Meanwhile, as Georgia was using four pitchers to get through the first four innings, Hicks continued to cruise. He gave up just three hits through the first six shutout innings, walking just one and striking out five.
But then Hicks ran into trouble in the top of the seventh. After getting two more easy outs to start the inning, Hicks' day was done after he walked Georgia's Sebastian Murillo on four pitches, gave up a hard-hit double into the left-field corner by Mason LaPlante, and then hit Josh Stinson with the very next pitch, loading the bases and bringing Cade Austin on in relief.
"I felt like I got better as the game went along, until that last inning when the wheels kind of fell off," Hicks said.
He need not have worried.
Austin promptly struck out Ben Anderson looking on a 2-2 pitch to get the Gamecocks out of the jam.
When Tippett ripped a bases-loaded triple to the gap in right-centerfield in the bottom of the seventh, producing three more insurance runs, the game essentially was over.
For Hicks, who earned the win, the day literally was a dream come true.
"It was awesome," he said. "It's something I've dreamed of pretty much all my life and something I've been working towards. I'm really grateful for the opportunity, and I just wanted to leave it all out there, didn't want to hold anything back. So I"m pretty happy with how it went."
HOW IT HAPPENED
B2 | Petry singled to left center. LeCroy singled to left field, Petry advanced to second. Casas reached on a fielder's choice to third base LeCroy advanced to second, Petry out at third 3b unassisted. Tippett singled to left field, loading the bases. After Brewer struck out swinging, Georgia replaced Woods as pitcher with Rhadans. Stone singled sharply to left field, scoring two. South Carolina 2, Georgia 0.
B4 | LeCroy singled to left. Casas grounded out to first, LeCroy advanced to second. Tippett hit a dribbler down the third-base line for an infield hit, putting SC runners on first and third. Georgia replaced Rhadans as pitcher with Luke Wagner. Brewer immediately greeted Wagner with an RBI single to left, scoring LeCroy. Wagner picked off Tippett at second, but then made a quick exit after walking Stone and giving up another run-scoring single to Braswell, with the play at the plate reviewed and the safe call confirmed. The next Georgia pitcher, Nolan Crisp, immediately gave up an infield single to Wimmer to load the bases and then walked another run in by giving a free pass to Cole Messina before finally getting out of the inning. South Carolina 5, Georgia 0.
B7 | Wimmer singled to third base. One out later, Petry walked. After LeCroy grounded out to the pitcher, Casas was intentionally walked, loading the bases. Tippett tripled to right center, clearing the bases by scoring Casas scored, Petry and Wimmer. South Carolina 8, Georgia 0.
B8 | Georgia put Zach DeVito in to pitch, replacing Crisp. Stone singled to center field. Braswell walked Stone. Hornung pinch hit for Wimmer and grounded out to 1b unassisted, advancing Braswell to second and Stone to third. Will Pearson came on to pitch for Georgia, replacing DeVito, and promptly hit Messina with a pitch. Petry lifted a long sacrifice fly to deep left, scoring Stone. South Carolina 9, Georgia 0.
South Carolina (40-17) advanced to a second-round showdown vs. 3-seed LSU (42-13). First pitch is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and the game will be televised on SEC Network.
Georgia finished its season with a record of 29-28.