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April 3, 2012
USC looks to sustain momentum
South Carolina has reached the halfway mark of the 2012 regular season with a 20-8 overall record.
How well did the Gamecocks do in the first 28 games? If they duplicate that first-half mark, they'll finish with 40 wins heading into the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., which should be good enough to host a NCAA Regional.
Then again, the Gamecocks have won just three of their first nine SEC games, a trend that must be reversed if they desire the opportunity to pursue a third straight national title.
Twenty one of USC's final 28 games are against SEC opponents, so there's no better time to follow up the thrilling 2-1 series win at Vanderbilt with another solid weekend.
Starting with Wednesday's road trip to Patriots Point to face College of Charleston, USC has a busy Easter Week ahead. After taking on former USC assistant Monte Lee and the Cougars, USC returns home for a three-game series against SEC East rival Tennessee (18-10 overall, 5-4 in SEC), which swept hapless Alabama (9-19 overall, 1-8 in SEC) last weekend in Knoxville.
Left-hander Adam Westmoreland (1-0, 2. 70 ERA in 13.1 IP, 10 K, 3 BB) will make his third start of the season for the Gamecocks on Wednesday. He will be opposed by College of Charleston RHP Ryan West (2-2, 3.38 ERA in 32.0 IP).
USC has won the last seven meetings against the Cougars, including an 8-3 decision last year in Mt. Pleasant. The two Palmetto State rivals will square off again on April 17 in Columbia.
Game 1 of the Tennessee series is Friday at 7 p.m. with the middle game scheduled for Saturday at 8 p.m. ESPNU will nationally televise Game 2. The finale on Easter Sunday is set for a 1:30 p.m. first pitch.
A key question for USC heading into this week's action is whether Christian Walker will continue to swing a scorching hot bat for the Gamecocks. Through 28 games, Walker is batting .333 with six homers and 28 RBI (all team highs), reinforcing his reputation as one of the top hitters in college baseball.
Walker had three homers in the series win at Vanderbilt, including a dramatic decisive blast over the left field fence in the 13th inning of Sunday's marathon rubber game. USC won 6-4.
"He swung the bat extremely well and had a great weekend," USC associate head coach Chad Holbrook said of Walker. "From time to time, he can put the team on his back and we've seen him do that over the course of his three years here."
Walker made a few adjustments to his swing during the days leading up to the Vanderbilt series. Though subtle, they made a big difference.
"All great hitters make adjustments and know themselves better than any coach knows or better than outside instructor knows," Holbrook said. "We try to help Christian as we go along, but Christian is very intelligent.
"He makes adjustments on his own in the middle of an at-bat when a coach can't help him. But he can help himself pretty well. He's not just a big strong guy that gets up there and tries to just grip it and rip it. He is a very astute hitter."
Generally, opposing pitchers were busting Walker inside and getting him out that way. But the junior from Limerick, Pa., watched some video and slightly changed his stance and swing. Bingo.
"The book on Christian is to pitch him in, but he has adjusted as all good hitters do," Holbrook said. "When they're pitching you a certain way, either you keep making outs or you adjust. Christian does a great job adjusting from pitch to pitch and from at-bat to at-bat. He can use the whole field and he had a great two-strike approach. He's a solid hitter. When he gets on a roll like this weekend, he's awfully fun to watch."
Walker has also become more patient as a hitter. He's walked a team-high 19 times and been hit four times while striking out just 11 times in 102 at-bats. Thus, he's making contact and forcing teams to play defense.
Walker wasn't alone in his heroics last weekend in Music City. Matt Price threw six innings of stellar relief on Sunday, limiting the Commodores to one hit and one run with seven strikeouts and four walks. A trio of USC relievers (Tyler Webb, Price and Jordan Montgomery) held Vanderbilt to one run over the final 8.1 innings in Sunday's extra-inning affair.
Price picked up his first save of the season and the 31st of his career - a new school record - in last Friday's 8-3 win that opened the series. Price hurled three scoreless innings in relief without allowing a hit and striking out five.
For the season, Price is 3-2 with a 3.12 ERA in 40.1 innings pitch with 49 strikeouts and 10 walks. He's allowed 15 runs on 19 hits, meaning he is surrendering only one hit every two innings he pitches.
Brison Celek was inserted into the cleanup spot behind Walker as the designated hitter for the Vanderbilt series and went 4-for-13, including 2-for-5 with a RBI in Sunday's series-clinching win. Celek, who had just 17 ABs prior to the series, is now batting .333 (10-for-30) with six RBI and three doubles.
Struggling 3B LB Dantzler (.224) was dropped in the order to make room for Celek, who redshirted last season after collecting just eight ABs as a freshman.
"Brison Celek has gotten some at-bats over the last couple of weeks and he's had some success," Holbrook said. "Brison is a big strong kid with some bat speed that has the respect of opponents and pitching coaches. Brison can hit a ball a long way. LB has been struggling from time to time this season and hasn't been very consistent.
"Brison gave Christian some protection. It made them pick their poison a couple of times. Brison swung the bat well, which impacted late in the game (on Sunday) because they pitched to Christian. One of those reasons why is how Brison was seeing the ball."
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