Vanderbilt's bullpen failed to hold a two-run lead and wasted a solid performance by starter Taylor Hill as the Commodores fell to No. 3 South Carolina 5-3 on Sunday in Columbia, S.C.
With the loss, the top-ranked Commodores (32-5, 11-4) dropped their first series of the season and fell out of the top spot in the Southeastern Conference. They had won a school-record eight straight conference series but fell to second place as the Gamecocks (28-7, 12-3), the defending national champions, took sole possession of first.
Vanderbilt led 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh thanks to three solo home runs, two by Jason Esposito. The third baseman tied the game at 1-1 in the second with a leadoff homer. He then was a part of back-to-back blasts in the sixth. First baseman Aaron Westlake lined a shot down the right field line, just inside the foul pole, for his team-leading sixth of the season. Esposito followed up with a homer to left center, his third of the weekend and fifth of the season.
Esposito now has an 18-game hitting streak.
Through six innings, Hill allowed one earned run on four hits and struck out six. He gave up a leadoff double in the seventh to designated hitter Steven Neff, who had just one career at-bat entering Sunday’s game.
Hill was pulled for left-handed reliever Corey Williams, who allowed a walk to the only batter he faced.
Up next was righty Will Clinard, who also pitched to just one batter and gave up an infield bunt single that loaded the bases.
Kevin Ziomek followed and hit a batter then gave up a single that tied the game. The freshman gave up the go-ahead run on a groundout to second and allowed an insurance run on a sacrifice fly.
Vanderbilt used five pitchers in the inning as Jack Armstrong replace Ziomek and got the final out. In the inning, 10 South Carolina batters combined for three hits, two walks, two hit batters and — most importantly — four runs.
Vanderbilt threatened against South Carolina closer Matt Price in the ninth. Price, who entered in the seventh when the Gamecocks were still trailing, put two runners on with one out. After a wild pitch, the tying run was on second base. But Tony Kemp struck out looking for the final out.
Clinard (1-1) was tagged with the loss — just the second for the Vanderbilt bullpen this season. The Commodore pitching staff entered the weekend with the SEC’s top ERA, a mark of 2.19, and 320 strikeouts, also a league high. VU allowed 12 runs this weekend, the most this year in a SEC series.
South Carolina snapped Vanderbilt’s 11-game winning streak on Friday when the Gamecocks defeated Commodore ace Sonny Gray. The right-hander from Smyrna fell to 7-2 this season after he allowed three earned runs on 11 hits — the most of his career — in 7.2 innings. He didn’t get much help as the Vanderbilt offense mustered just three hits in the 3-1 loss and Anthony Gomez’s 29-game hitting streak came to an end.
The Commodores bounced back Saturday. Kemp went 5-for-5 and Westlake and Mike Yastrzemski each drove in two runs in a 6-4 victory. Grayson Garvin (7-1) allowed four runs on six hits in six innings to get the win as five different pitchers, including Williams, saw action.
Armstrong and Ziomek, combined to allow just one hit in three innings. Closer Navery Moore picked up his eighth save.
The Commodores do not have a midweek game this week and don’t play again until LSU comes to Nashville this weekend for a three-game series, starting with a 6 p.m. matchup Friday at Hawkins Field.