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May 7, 2012
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Arkansas
GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger breaks down the best, worst and plain nastiest moments from No. 5 South Carolina's 2-1 series win over No. 18 Arkansas.
NO. 5 SOUTH CAROLINA 8-6-10, NO. 18 ARKANSAS 6-7-7
(USC wins series 2-1)
CLOSING IN: The problem - and it's a good one to have - with a long-tenured period of success is that it's really hard to keep hitting milestones. Eventually, the milestones are going to be so impossible that they're only achievable with a Herculean effort (like an undefeated regular season, or 10 straight trips to Omaha, etc.) USC isn't at that point, but it could hit a rather significant milestone if it keeps on its present course. The Gamecocks under Ray Tanner have won three SEC regular-season titles, but have never done it in back-to-back seasons. With a tie for first place with LSU with six games to play, USC is right in the wheelhouse to accomplish the feat. The Tigers host Vanderbilt this weekend while USC travels to Georgia, and if the standings are the same afterward (tied), then the Tigers come to Columbia for a three-game, winner-take-all series. USC was in that position two years ago, but lost two games to Florida; it won the regular-season title last season on Alabama's field. It would be another feather in Tanner's camp to clinch an SEC championship at Carolina Stadium.
EIGHT IS ENOUGH: With a sizzling 15-3 record since a bad SEC start, USC is right back in contention for one of the top-eight national seeds, which would ensure home-field advantage in the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals. It's not a done deal yet (obviously, since the season isn't over), but USC is doing everything it needs to do. Its strength of schedule won't improve that much, despite playing LSU, Georgia and a very solid USC Upstate team for the duration, but the Gamecocks are probably right back in the mix for one of the top eight seeds. It may be considered on the outside looking in in terms of conference division - with Kentucky, LSU and Florida also right there, perhaps the selection committee wouldn't want to give four seeds to the same conference. But if USC deserves it, then USC deserves it. How the Gamecocks can make it a definite is by following Al Davis' advice - Just win, baby.
HOGS CALLED: It seems a long-ago memory now, at least in following the advice that a team is only as good as its last game (or in this case, series). Sure, USC's all-time series record at Arkansas is a cruddy 2-7, but those two have been in the last two. In those, USC is a combined 5-1 in six games. Baum Stadium is an incredibly tough place to play and the free-swinging Razorbacks made life hell for USC's pitching staff, but USC returned the favor, which we're about to get to.
LIGHT BATS?: USC's 10 runs on Sunday were driven in by the 5-6-7-8-9 hitters in the batting order. Adam Matthews, having a lousy year, got it started with a two-strike, two-out single through short that scored the first run. Chase Vergason, such an offensive liability that Tanner started a guy who had never played second base over him because the other guy could hit, stroked two doubles and a homer in the series, driving in two runs on Sunday. Tanner English, although still prone to striking out, knocked in three runs on Sunday. And all of this was against a collective pitching staff that had been leading the conference in team ERA and was playing on its home field. The Arkansas bullpen was giving up just over one run per game as a staff. USC torched it for over nine runs per game. Seems a long time ago that the Gamecocks were considering themselves lucky to score four runs per game.
KID K: How about that Forrest Koumas? Throws one inning in a month, then comes out and tosses a gem against a hot-hitting team in the hardest park in the league in which to win. Sure, it was lost a bit in the shuffle, but Koumas was tremendous. His curve and slider were biting through the zone and he could dial up the fastball, brushing batters across the eyebrows as they futilely tried to chop-swing. If Colby Holmes remains shelved, Koumas will be a vital asset to the Gamecocks going forward, and that's extremely good to see. USC was getting thin on pitchers, and was about to start going to a version of the old Milwaukee Braves motto - "Michael and Montgomery and pray for (something that rhymes that resembles rain)."
SIGH: The runs are coming in bunches now, which is a relief, and no team is ever going to be 100 percent effective at situational hitting (a team would be lottery-pick lucky to be effective 50 percent of the time). It's just that it's extremely frustrating to watch USC get a leadoff double, or come to bat with the bases loaded, and not score. Especially when Arkansas made a living with single after single, hit in the gap on a low liner that didn't bounce until it hit the shallow outfield grass. Every time a Razorback would get on to start the inning, the next guy would bunt, and it would work. USC sometimes did it, but also sometimes didn't try for the straight steal (when English, who is finally getting on consistently, was sitting on first with no outs). These are the kinds of situations where USC will have to be on during the postseason, because one missed chance may not yield another.
MATTY ICE: He got the job done, and will continue to get it done, and I should say that I'm not that concerned that Matt Price was not on his game on Sunday. It's a bad day, and they happen, even to Superman. What was ugly about it was just watching Price fight, refusing to surrender and throw ball three or four, and get rapped about like he was a piñata. Lord, was that depressing. That kid has closed out so many games, so many huge games, that it was easy to think that he would never not have his stuff. Sunday, he said he had it, but Arkansas was waiting on it as the only strikes Price could throw were right over the plate, belt-high, with average velocity. The big lead certainly aided Tanner's trust in him, and Price did get the win. It came with some nervous moments, but the win was recorded. He'll probably go out against Georgia this weekend and blow away the Bulldogs in his best impression of Goose Gossage. He's hoping so, and so is everybody else.
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