If you were looking for one of the turning points in Tuesday's winner-take-all super regional game between South Carolina and North Carolina, you didn't have to wait long. It came in the top of the first inning, when an obviously unsettled Benton Moss gave up a hit and hit a batter in the space of his first few pitches for North Carolina. Joey Pankake, one of South Carolina's best hitters and hottest in the postseason, stepped to the plate with a chance to give the Gamecocks an early lead.
What happened next was one of the worst managerial decisions I've seen in the postseason. Pankake, on what can only be assumed to be orders from head coach Chad Holbrook, bunted. After a ball, Pankake's first bunt effort, at what would likely have been the second ball, went foul. Pankake bunted again, this time at what appeared to be a possible third ball, and it went straight back to Moss. Moss threw to third to get the lead runner out, then settled down and retired two straight batters to get out of the jam.
It is impossible to tell how things might have gone if Pankake hadn't been ordered to bunt. But even aside from the mountains of evidence showing that mindless bunting actually depresses scoring, to take the bat out of the hands of one of your best hitters in a prime scoring opportunity early in the most important game of your season isn't just malpractice. It's stupid. It is the kind of pressure-induced chokes that South Carolina managed to avoid in its three-season run as perhaps the best program in college baseball. It was a disease that afflicts the entire SEC -- overbunting -- taken to a ridiculous extreme.
That said, it's hard to blame the loss solely on Holbrook. The Gamecocks did eventually take the lead later in the game, only to lose it again, and there were three South Carolina errors on the afternoon.
But it's hard to ignore those two runners who were standing on base with nobody out in the first inning when you consider a game that was ultimately decided by a single run. And Holbrook made other questionable calls throughout the game, including another bunt with runners on first and second and nobody out in the sixth that once again led to the lead runner being thrown out at third. South Carolina would end up scoring a run in that inning -- but might they have scored two or three otherwise?
None of that takes away from what Holbrook did with this team. It was probably not as good as any of the three editions of Gamecocks that made it to the final series of the College World Series from 2010-12. And when the season came to an end Tuesday afternoon, that team was still two runs away from Omaha. That's not a bad year for a team that has some young talent that will be returning in 2014.
And perhaps the head coach will have learned something from the mistakes that kept him from taking that team one step further this year. Perhaps he will also look back at those two runners and that inning of hope and wonder what might have been.