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March 22, 2013
VIDEO: Nolan Belcher
VIDEO: Jack Wynkoop
NO. 21 ARKANSAS (14-7, 1-2 SEC) at NO. 5 SOUTH CAROLINA (18-3, 2-1)
When: 7:30 p.m. today, 3:15 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
TV: CSS today, FS Carolinas/FS South Saturday
Probable starting pitchers: Arkansas -- RHP Barrett Astin (today, 1-1, 1.90 ERA); RHP Ryne Stanek (Saturday, 1-1, 3.32); LHP Randall Fant (Sunday, 1-0, 1.12). South Carolina -- RHP Evan Beal (today, 2-0, 0.56); LHP Nolan Belcher (Saturday, 4-1, 1.25); TBA (Sunday)
Next up: USC plays at College of Charleston at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.
It was understood.
The year was beginning and the preseason polls had Arkansas as No. 1. South Carolina, participants in three straight national championship series, didn't pay it much mind. Despite the Gamecocks having beaten Arkansas twice in Omaha last year, they knew what the deal was - Arkansas returned an awful lot of talent from a team that had gotten within one win of playing for a national title, and USC had lost a lot of key pieces. Besides, it's not where a team starts, it's where it finishes.
Twenty-one games in, the No. 5 Gamecocks are again in their non-judgmental phase. They're flying high. Preseason top-ranked Arkansas?
The Razorbacks limp in at 14-7, having lost their first SEC series of the season last week, and are wondering when they're going to put all of the massive talent that they have into a winning product. They have played a tough slate, but to be a mere 14-7 at this point has some scratching their heads and wonder what exactly is going on in the Ozarks.
USC, naturally, isn't paying any attention to that. As beat up as the Gamecocks (18-3, 2-1 SEC) are, they can't overlook anybody.
"That series last week at Ole Miss could have gone either way," coach Chad Holbrook pointed out on Thursday. "That's two heavyweights playing toe-to-toe. Ole Miss probably got a bounce here and there. The margin of victory in this league is very, very minute."
Arkansas lost 7-1 and 6-4 in 13 innings to the Rebels, winning the middle game 10-1. Before that, the Razorbacks lost a game to Western Illinois, two games to Arizona State and to Gonzaga and Pacific in a tournament in Arizona.
Despite that, the numbers and the talent are too good to ignore. Arkansas won't lose forever - it should be noted that after losing four straight at the Arizona tournament, the Hogs reeled off six straight wins before the Ole Miss series. They have three top-of-the-line weekend pitchers (Holbrook called them three Friday guys), they have five everyday .300 hitters, they have plenty of experience and poise from a team that may have just won it all last year, had they not run into a team that was so used to winning in Omaha.
No, USC isn't taking anything for granted, even back in the comfy environs of Carolina Stadium for two straight weeks.
"You can't take anybody lightly," first baseman LB Dantzler said. "They have talent, they have depth, and you can make an argument that they're one of the best teams in the country."
USC received good news on the injury front, although it may not drastically affect anything this weekend. Tanner English, who pinch-ran in a win at The Citadel earlier this week, is being penciled into the lineup to provide some sorely needed outfield depth. He's been out with a shoulder problem but has shown signs of progress, enough so that Holbrook feels good about playing him this weekend.
Graham Saiko (wrist) and Ahmad Christian (back) should be fine long-term, but they're unlikely to play this weekend. Christian just returned to hitting a ball off a tee after being shelved for a month, and may not even dress. Saiko is also out after being fitted with a hard cast. Pitcher Jordan Montgomery will also not play, this week or next, but he at least received a clean bill of health to resume throwing.
The Gamecocks have been winning due to stellar starting and closing pitching, overcoming spotty middle relief with a barrage of hitting. Discounting the three offensively challenged games at Missouri (the weather, shortstop Joey Pankake said, was a big influence there), the Gamecocks have still been lighting up the scoreboard even with a fluctuating lineup. Dantzler, Pankake and Grayson Greiner each homered against The Citadel.
Struggles or no, Arkansas is still an SEC team, and may just have revenge on its mind. Whether that's for Omaha last year, or USC winning the last three regular-season series (two in Fayetteville, which was a house of horrors for the Gamecocks during the great majority of their time in the SEC), or maybe just showing that they were definitely worthy of that preseason ranking, the Razorbacks are coming in not able to be taken lightly.
"It's still early. They'll be ready to play, for sure," Nolan Belcher said. "They're going to be ready to play when they roll into town."
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