Top-seed Pirates slam Gamecocks|Henderson hits grand slam, Roller blasts three-run shot

Published 11:32 pm Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sports Editor

GREENVILLE — The East Carolina Pirates lived to play another day.
Brandon Henderson blasted a grand slam, Kyle Roller belted a three-run shot and Kevin Brandt was lights out on the mound. That strong combination lifted the top-seed Pirates to an 8-6 win over the No. 2 seed South Carolina Gamecocks in Sunday night’s 2009 NCAA Greenville Regional, played in front of 3,911 fans at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
It was ECU’s second win on the day, both coming in elimination games, and the first in eight tries against South Carolina in postseason play. The Pirates (45-18) topped Binghamton, 16-9, earlier Sunday before knocking off the Gamecocks (40-22), who had beaten ECU 12-2 Saturday night.
“What a day,” ECU coach Billy Godwin said. “I’m really proud of our players and the effort they gave. To play the way we did and to do the things we did is pretty remarkable.”
After building a comfortable lead, ECU held off a late South Carolina rally. The Gamecocks scored twice in the seventh and added four in the ninth.
“I was really proud of our guys making a run there at the end to put some pressure on East Carolina,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “This East Carolina team is very good and it’s no surprise to anybody, especially us, how good they are and how good they are offensively.”
The Pirates and Gamecocks will play for the regional championship at 6 p.m. today.
“This is a really big game,” Roller said. “This is something we’ve talked about a lot as a team — to get to a Super Regional and to get to Omaha. We have to come out tomorrow and be ready to play against a good South Carolina time, but we have a little momentum on our side and we hope to use that.”
The winner travels to Chapel Hill to face the North Carolina Tar Heels (45-16), the No. 4 national seed, in the NCAA Super Regionals. The best-of-three series at Boshamer Stadium begins Friday.
Each Super Regional winner advances to the College World Series in Omaha.
The big start and key blows put the Pirates in the position to advance. Henderson hit his grand slam in the seventh to make it 8-0. It was the senior’s second grand slam of the season, and the fourth of his career.
“I’ve been seeing the ball well all day,” Henderson said. “I think (South Carolina starter Nolan Belcher) had thrown me five or six straight change-ups so I figured I might as well sit on it this time. He threw it, and I got it. It felt really good.”
Brandt (9-1) was the beneficiary of the offensive onslaught.
“I was just trying to throw strikes,” Brandt said. “I was just trying to get the ball over the plate. I knew that if they put it in play, my defense would have my back.”
The freshman lefty, who retired 11 straight at one point, allowed four runs on nine hits in 8 1/3 innings. He struck out four and didn’t walk a batter.
“I really felt like the key to the game was a great start by Kevin Brandt,” Tanner said. “He pitched a heck of a game. He was very special and he did a heck of a job.
“They played outstanding defense behind Brandt, too. We had some pretty good at-bats, but they played tremendous defense.”
Roller (2-for-4, 3 RBIs) continued his scorching hitting with a three-run blast, his third homer of the day, in the first inning. Trent Whitehead extended his hitting streak to 16 games, smacking a leadoff double off Belcher (4-5). After Ryan Wood (2-for-3) singled, Roller smashed his team-leading 16th homer of the year, a no-doubter into right-center field for a quick 3-0 lead.
“The three-run blast early on by Roller was a tremendous shot,” Tanner said. “He had a great day.”
Dustin Harrington’s 14th homer of the year, a solo shot to start the fourth, expanded the ECU lead to 4-0.
Henderson made it 8-0 with one swing of the bat in the seventh. Wood hit a one-out double, Stephen Batts walked and Roller was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Henderson quickly cleared them, smacking the first pitch he saw over the fence in left.
That ended Belcher’s night. The freshman southpaw allowed eight runs on nine hits in 6 1/3 innings.
“I felt like I had all my stuff working, but they made me pay for those two bad pitches,” Belcher said. “I didn’t keep them in the park tonight and they made us pay for it.”
The Gamecocks finally got to Brandt in the bottom of the seventh. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Justin Dalles hit singles, and both came home on a double by Andrew Crisp (2-for-4, 2 RBIs), making it 8-2.
Crisp is confident his Gamecocks will bounce back today.
“We’re upbeat and we have another game,” Crisp said. “We obviously would have loved to take this one, but it’s baseball. Tomorrow we’re going to go out and play hard and play smart and do all the things we’ve done so far to get us here.”
Dalles (3-for-4, 2 RBIs) hit a two-run shot and Brady Thomas had a pinch-hit, two-run single in the ninth to pull South Carolina within 8-6, but Seth Simmons (2 runs, 4 hits in two-thirds of an inning) got Jeffery Jones to fly out to Whitehead in center to end the game.
“I was getting kind of worried there,” Whitehead said. “It felt good when it was finally over with.”
* – Trent Whitehead, a former Washington Pam Pack star, has a 16-game hitting streak. Whitehead has 103 hits this season, which is the second most in ECU single-season history. Darryl Lawhorn holds the school-record with 104 hits in 2002.
Whitehead has 268 at-bats this year, which is a new single-season record. Jamie Paige had 267 at-bats in 2004.
* – Kyle Roller has 39 home runs (tied for fourth on the ECU career chart) and 154 RBIs (tied for eighth on the ECU career chart). His 74 RBIs this year are the third most in a single-season.
* – The Pirates have set single-season records for home runs, runs scored, hits and batting average.
* – The Pirates are 5-16 all-time against the Gamecocks. ECU picked up its first win over South Carolina in postseason play.
The Gamecocks have taken wins of 12-2 in the 2009 Greenville Regional, 4-2 and 5-3 in the 2004 Columbia (S.C.) Super Regionals, 4-0 in the 2003 Atlanta Regional, 6-5 in the 1993 Atlantic Regional in Atlanta, 4-1 in the 1977 Atlantic Regional in Columbia and 5-1 in the 1974 District 3 Playoffs.
* – Devin Harris came up with the defensive play of the game, leaping high at the fence in right field to rob Adam Matthews of a home run. The nifty snag preserved ECU’s 4-0 lead in the fifth.
2009 NCAA Greenville Regional
Clark-LeClair Stadium
Friday’s Games
Game 1: (2) South Carolina 11, George Mason (3) 3
Saturday’s Games
Game 2: (1) East Carolina 11, (4) Binghamton 7
Game 3: Binghamton 11, George Mason 6, George Mason eliminated
Game 4: South Carolina 12, East Carolina 2
Sunday’s Games
Game 5: East Carolina 16, Binghamton 9, Binghamton eliminated
Game 6: East Carolina 8, South Carolina 6
Monday’s Game
Game 7: 6 p.m. – East Carolina vs. South Carolina