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April 15, 2012
Don't look now, but all is not as lost as previously believed.
Tenth-ranked South Carolina completed a three-game sweep of Mississippi State with a 6-4 win on Sunday, rising past a bad call or two and getting another gem from Sunday starter Colby Holmes. The Gamecocks (27-10, 8-7 SEC), started the league slate 1-5, but have gone 7-2 since, including five straight wins.
There are five SEC series left to play, but USC has gotten back into the mix for NCAA Regional hosting consideration. While a shot at the SEC regular-season championship may be slim - Kentucky and LSU lead the league at 11-4 - the Gamecocks are at least in good position to make the conference tournament and compete for that title, and the automatic pass to the NCAA Regionals that comes with it.
Those scenarios will be debated over the next 5-6 weeks. For now, coach Ray Tanner was able to enjoy the way his club didn't give up and took advantage of two straight home weekends for two series wins, part of three straight overall.
"Everybody's ecstatic," said Holmes, who improved to 5-0 with his second straight no-walk game, falling two outs shy of a complete game. "Guys are starting to swing the bat well, pitchers are throwing great. It's like one big family, all picking up each other."
USC again took an early lead, but fell behind 2-1 in the fifth on a couple of close calls. The first, where Mitch Slauter slid into home and was ruled to have beat the tag from Dante Rosenberg, who was right on top of the play, had Rosenberg and Slauter mixing it up afterward and Tanner about to blow his stack.
"When I went to home plate, it crossed my mind that this might be a good opportunity to exit stage left," Tanner said. "'Might be a good chance for me to leave my team today and see how they respond.'"
Tanner kept his cool and avoided the third ejection of his USC career, but let plate umpire Mark Chapman know what he thought of the call. Then Holmes worked a double-play ball but threw to second base instead of home, and the relay throw from Joey Pankake was late to first to score another run.
Trailing 2-1 and the fans howling - first-base umpire David Savage also issued a call against USC, when Adam Matthews appeared to beat a double-up throw to first but was called out - the Gamecocks regrouped. Tanner English continued a hot weekend by singling to lead off the fifth, and Pankake grounded out to advance English to second. Evan Marzilli tapped a dribbler to third base that looked primed to end the inning.
But MSU's Daryl Norris, recently returned to the bag after dislocating his kneecap, couldn't glove the ball. English slid into third as Norris tried to pick up the pill, and Marzilli reached. Christian Walker walked to bring up LB Dantzler, who plated a run on a fielder's-choice, and Brison Celek scored a run with a sacrifice fly.
Back in front, Matthews singled home a run and USC added two more in the eighth, important insurance as the Gamecocks' bullpen flirted with giving up the lead. Staying away from Matt Price, who had saved the first two games of the series, USC went to Hunter Privette and Tyler Webb, who retired Sam Frost with two men on to end the game.
Holmes allowed eight hits and four runs, but didn't walk a batter and struck out three. He's become one of the most vital pieces of the pitching staff and will continue to helm the Sunday spot.
"I knew I needed to go out there and pitch as long as I can," said Holmes, who was given a chance for a complete game but had to leave after his first two batters in the ninth reached. "I just pitched my heart out and everything worked for me today.
"The past two starts, I feel like I've pitched to contact. Just let them hit it. I've got my defense behind me when I need it."
The Gamecocks rose above .500 in the SEC for the first time this season and take a trip to Auburn next weekend, an opponent they have historically dominated. Things are looking up.
"You know how it is in this league -- give a punch, take a punch, that's the way it goes," Tanner said. "We've had some adversity and we've bounced back a little bit.
"We got five series left. We're mixed up now. We're mixed up with everybody else. I hope we're able to hit one of those strides in these last 18, 19 games."
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