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March 15, 2013
NO. 5 SOUTH CAROLINA (15-2, 0-0 SEC) at MISSOURI (5-7)
When: 7 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Taylor Stadium, Columbia, Mo.
Tickets: Available at the box office
Probable starting pitchers: South Carolina -- RHP Evan Beal (today, 1-0, 0.00 ERA); LHP Nolan Belcher (Saturday, 3-1, 1.63); RHP Colby Holmes (Sunday, 1-1, 4.22). Missouri - LHP Rob Zastryzny (today, 1-2, 4.58); RHP Brett Graves (Saturday, 0-1, 3.24); TBA (Sunday)
Notes: Each team begins SEC play. Missouri welcomes a team that has played for the past three national championships for its inaugural SEC series. The Tigers are 72-78-1 against current SEC teams in their history, although they have never played USC. The Gamecocks are traveling without Jordan Montgomery and Ahmad Christian, but Tanner English is on the trip and expected to play at least two games. Mizzou shortstop Dillon Everett is also back from injury, as a broken hand in the Tigers' opener sidelined him. LB Dantzler hit two home runs and drove in six in his last game. The weather is expected to be fine for the weekend after Missouri recently had to cancel several games due to snow.
Next up: USC plays at The Citadel at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
Fifth-ranked South Carolina is right where it was expected to be, although the road to get there was anything but expected.
Most predicted the Gamecocks to be around 15-2 at this point, figuring they'd lose a couple of games because nobody goes undefeated, but that they would look as strong as ever heading into SEC play. Even when USC struggled early, the same problems as 2012 surfacing (the Gamecocks couldn't hit), its defense and pitching were so good and often overwhelming that it didn't matter.
But even though the competition hasn't been lights-out, USC has gotten stronger without having some of its greatest strengths. Even with ace pitcher Jordan Montgomery sidelined, weekend starter Colby Holmes struggling, center fielder Tanner English falling to pieces and backup outfielder Ahmad Christian still laid up with a bad back, the Gamecocks have improved.
Their pitching threw five shutouts in eight games. They're hitting .305 as a team and averaging seven runs a game, with five starters (including English), batting at least .304. They're fielding .978 after a few games that showcased the yips.
In short, they look every bit the part of the team that has played in three straight national championship series. Heading into the real season, SEC play, they couldn't be feeling much better, even with key pieces of the team banged up.
"The whole year, we knew we had it in us," said the red-hot LB Dantzler, hitting .429 and tied for fourth in the SEC with 23 RBIs. "We got off to a slow start and maybe had some nerves. I think it's great going into SEC play that we're hitting this well, and I hope we can keep it going."
Now to keep it going. If the Gamecocks can get through the SEC season like they normally do, they can only stand to benefit when Montgomery returns and English is back to 100 percent. It's the next 10 weekends that will truly define how good USC is, and what kind of platform it will have to stand on once the postseason rolls around.
"SEC play, each game is a 470-yard par-4," coach Chad Holbrook said. "It's just a war. It could go either way. You've got to play well, and we've played well. Last year, we started 1-5 and everybody thought the world was ending, and we finished up OK."
USC won its second straight SEC East championship last season, finishing 17-6 after starting 1-5. The Gamecocks were only a half-game from the regular-season title as well.
This year, they start with SEC newcomer Missouri, at its place. The Tigers are a mere 5-7, having to cancel several games due to snow, but are 5-1 after starting 0-6. The Gamecocks figure they're paying their penance by having to open on the road against an unfamiliar team, since they get the next two series at home.
Holbrook won't be drastically changing his style just for conference play. He'll go with what got him here.
"It's not a different sport," he said. "Just because we're going into SEC play, we're not changing the game that we've been currently playing."
That means more pressure on the pitchers from the base-runners, more being aggressive at the plate and the same-old, same-old from pitching and defense. The base-running mistakes have been neutralized lately due to the power surge from Dantzler and Joey Pankake (10 combined homers), but Holbrook still wants it to be fluid. That's why he yanked Graham Saiko in the first inning during a recent game when Saiko was picked off.
The pitching without Montgomery has been good, but not as good. Holmes has been troublesome lately, and has moved to the Sunday spot. Evan Beal, who threw a terrific game last week, has been upgraded to Fridays and Nolan Belcher, who has thrown well but extended himself a lot over the past two weeks, is on Saturday.
USC got several pitchers a few innings of work this week, anticipating some use at Mizzou in middle relief. The Gamecocks don't want to get into the habit of going to closer Tyler Webb in every seventh inning.
It's all been working well, but now comes the real test(s). There are no easy weekends in the league, and Holbrook knows that. Now is the time for his team to settle in and play the brand of baseball it wants to play in June.
"We've played 17 games," Holbrook said, "and we've played well for the most part."
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