They need a three-game sweep to secure the No. 2 seed in next week’s Ohio Valley Conference tournament in Jackson, Tenn., and with Thursday’s win, those plans are still on track. After all, you can’t sweep if you don’t win the first game.
And they got a little help when league-leading Tennessee Tech beat second-place Belmont 8-5.
A JSU sweep and one more Tech win will give the Gamecocks (31-23, 21-7) that No. 2 seed. A sweep and two Belmont wins would give the Gamecocks a share of the regular-season title and the 2 seed.
Shortly before the start of Thursday’s game, JSU officials announced the teams would conclude their series with a 1 p.m. doubleheader today in hopes of avoiding possible bad weather. That also would allow the Gamecocks to complete their schedule a day earlier than the rest of the league, then sit back and watch Belmont and Tennessee Tech fight it out. And they’d get an extra day of rest before opening the conference tournament.
The top two seeds don’t play until Thursday. The other four teams open the tournament Wednesday.
“Everybody in our dugout knows what’s going on and what we need to do,” JSU coach Jim Case said. “The focus has got to be on taking care of what we can take care of right now. That’s what I was proud of.
“I told them afterwards that was step No. 1. Don’t think about step No. 3. Let’s think about step No. 2 (now). We’ve got to come out and do everything we can to get after them in the first game tomorrow.”
The Gamecocks played long ball to win this one — hitting three homers in the first four innings to erase an early 2-0 deficit — and got eight strong innings from starter Casey Antley.
Catcher Stephen Bartlett hit a two-run blast in the second to put the Gamecocks ahead for good. Adam Miller homered leading off the third, and Andrew Bishop hit a two-run homer in the fourth. Bishop also drove in the Gamecocks’ first run before Bartlett’s homer.
“Wheaties,” Antley said of the power surge, photo-bombing Bartlett’s postgame interview.
It was the second time this season the Gamecocks hit three homers in a game. They had only two in their previous 13 games. The Eagles (15-39, 9-19), who play with a small porch at home, came into the series giving up an OVC-leading 45 homers this season (33 in OVC play).
“Our guys like to compete and they went out here and swung the sticks well,” Bartlett said. “We swung the sticks well. We’ve been swinging the sticks well and I’d like to keep swinging them well.”
Antley allowed five hits and struck out a career-high 10 while throwing 116 pitches. He was relieved by Robby Lilly in the ninth. The Gamecocks haven’t had a complete game since Hunter Rivers went all seven against SIU-Edwardsville on April 30, 2011 (130 games).
Antley couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, striking out the first two batters he faced. But the Eagles followed with three straight hits, including a two-run single by Alan Mochabee, to grab an early lead.
It didn’t last long. Bartlett, the No. 9 hitter, blasted a two-run homer to give JSU a 3-2 lead, and Miller pushed the lead to 4-2 with a leadoff homer in the third.
Antley gave up only two more hits after the first and at one point retired 11 batters in a row.
“Another big thing was us swinging the bats,” Antley said. “That takes a lot of pressure off me to go out there and just do my thing — throw strikes and give us a chance.
“After the first I told myself no more. Let’s throw up some zeroes and give this offense a chance to get us a win. My goal is to go out there and give us a chance. Giving up two runs in the first inning wasn’t ideal for that, so I said let’s go, it’s time to step it up.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.