The Gamecocks lost the first game of their three-game conference series with Murray State 5-4 Friday night, and if not for the call that went against them for the final out the teams might still be playing today.
With two outs in the ninth, Underwood came charging around third on Kyle Bluestein’s single to right field and appeared to have beaten Murray catcher Jacob Rhodes’ tag for what would have been the tying run. While the live angle appeared to show Underwood sliding across the plate to his knee — he has the hole in his uniform to prove it — when Rhodes applied his tag, plate umpire Travis Hargroder called him out, to the disbelief of the Gamecocks.
Case argued with Hargroder all the way up the third base line before giving up the chase midway into left field.
“I thought the guy was safe; there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he was safe,” Case said. “I thought probably a minimum from his foot to his knee had crossed the plate before he was tagged.
“I don’t know if the umpire was blocked or he just missed it, but I thought he was clearly safe.”
Even though they had trouble getting runners home early in the game, the Gamecocks (14-22, 8-5 OVC) applied pressure in the late innings and had the perfect setup in the ninth with the meat of their order coming to bat.
Underwood, a .500 hitter when leading off an inning this season, got it started by reaching second on an infield single and throwing error. Sam Eberle struck out and Ben Waldrip, who hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, flew out to right.
Bluestein followed with his sharp single. Murray right-fielder Colton Speed’s throw one-hopped to the plate with Rhodes grabbing it on the first base side before spinning back to apply his tag.
“There’s a lot of emotion right now, so I’m trying to constrain myself,” Underwood said. “In that situation you have to expect Bluestein is going to get a base hit, so I was ready to score throughout that whole at-bat.
“When he hit it, I was ready for it. I saw Coach G (Steve Gillispie) waving me home. A couple feet before the plate he hadn’t even gotten the ball yet, so … there’s no question in my mind I was safe. I didn’t think it was that close of a call, to be honest. Obviously, the umpire saw something different and not a whole lot we can do about that.”
The Thoroughbreds (19-20, 5-8) opened a 5-0 lead, scoring all their runs with two outs and the only ball they really hit hard off starter Aaron Elias to score those runs was Brandon Elliott’s three-run homer in the fifth.
Brandon Eggenschwiler drove in Murray’s first two runs on similarly soft singles in the third (to short left) and fifth (to short center).
“(The finish) tears up you because … I was proud of our guys that we answered that (5-0 deficit),” Case said. “That’s what makes it so difficult to stomach, the fact the kids battled hard, hard all night. When it’s 5-0 you can put a stamp on that one and mail it in and we’ll get them tomorrow. Well, that’s not what we did.
“We battled back and we put ourselves in an opportunity to tie. You knows what happens (the rest of) the game. We’ll never know now.”
The Gamecocks hadn’t lost the first game of a conference series since the next-to-last series last year. With their next loss, they will match last season’s loss total.
For them to win their seventh straight OVC series now, they’ll have to take the final two games. Working for them is a 25-6 record when OVC Game 3 is for the series. But they have to get there, and it’ll be on junior left-hander Daniel Watts to start them on their way today.
“It’s hard because we played so hard the whole day and for it to end on such an emotional and intense play like that, it motivates us to come out and play the way we can the next two days, that’s for sure,” Underwood said.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.