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March 30, 2013
Strangely enough, the season didn't end last week.
No, it's very much alive.
LB Dantzler's two home runs, the last to break a 3-3 tie in the eighth inning, led No. 17 South Carolina to a 6-3 win on Saturday and a sweep of Texas A&M. The Gamecocks, beaten and bruised after Arkansas waltzed in and swept the series last week, rebounded in the strongest way possible by returning the favor against the Aggies and prepared themselves for the next two SEC series, each on the road.
All wasn't perfect - Joey Pankake committed another error, his third of the series and 11th of the year, and the Gamecocks' middle relief continues to be Adam Westmoreland and the Pips. But USC won all three games, picking up two starting pitchers when they couldn't get through the fourth inning, and showed that it could indeed hit the ball when it needed to.
"What a difference six days make, I guess," coach Chad Holbrook said after USC improved to 22-6, 5-4 SEC. "Proud of our players -- they picked themselves off the mat. This weekend, we got the breaks. Our kids didn't get too down over last weekend."
Dantzler belted each of his shots to put USC ahead, 3-2 in the sixth and 4-3 in the eighth. A&M (18-11, 5-4 SEC) gave the Gamecocks two more runs in the eighth when right fielder Jonathan Moroney lost a routine fly ball in the sun, and the Gamecocks' sterling relief crew again finished what it had started.
Westmoreland, who threw 58 pitches to get the win two days ago, was again summoned after starter Jack Wynkoop struggled with command through three innings and Patrick Sullivan (plus shoddy defense) gave up a 1-0 USC lead. The big left-hander, a fifth-year senior who had been steadily declining after Tommy John surgery following his freshman season, continued his stellar season by yielding a scant three hits and a run over the next 4 2-3 innings.
To say that Westmoreland came out of nowhere would be an understatement. He had worked hard and rehabbed to get back to his freshman form, but it just wasn't happening. His confidence and his stuff had eroded but he was still around; after a string of successes earlier this season, Holbrook didn't hesitate to ask him, one more time, to come in and shut the door.
"Adam wanted to pitch (on Friday)," Holbrook said. "His arm bounces back. I didn't want to pitch Tyler (Webb) today, but Adam wanted to pitch yesterday. When guys feel good and guys come back to school for their senior year, this might be their last hurrah playing baseball, as long as we don't put the kid in danger, we're going to pitch him.
"That's one of the things I've been most proud of. He deserved something good to happen to him, with what he's been through."
Westmoreland was again nearly untouchable, getting a ground-out to leave Texas A&M with loaded bases in the fourth and only yielding one run in the seventh, making it a 3-3 game. He struck out three and walked one, but after Dantzler went yard for the second time in the eighth, he returned to the mound looking to finish the game.
A hit and a one-out walk forced Holbrook to use Webb, who had saved the previous two games of the series. Webb only needed six pitches to record his 11th save, the best mark in the SEC and among the nation's leaders.
Westmoreland improved to 3-0 and as usual, shrugged off the success. He's not going to brag about it, because he's seen the flipside of success, and he's not going to jinx it by talking about it too much.
"I enjoy the opportunities I get. I try to make the most of them," Westmoreland said. "Honestly, I try not to think about it too much. Right now, everything just feels good."
As does USC. A week after being swept at home for the first time since 1999, USC rose back above .500 in the SEC and got ready for the second half of the season.
"It's huge, obviously," said Connor Bright, who also smacked a solo homer. "Last weekend wasn't exactly what we wanted. We wanted to come out and play the game we knew how to play, and I think we did."
Going against the fireballing Daniel Mengden, USC's chances were limited, but the Gamecocks managed to get four hits, including homers from Dantzler and Bright. USC's defense, particularly Chase Vergason at third base (he started two double plays in the first two innings to aid the scuffling Wynkoop), was getting USC out of jams and once George Iskenderian singled to score Vergason in the second, USC had a lead.
It didn't last long, the Aggies leaping ahead 2-1 when Wynkoop, Sullivan and Pankake all contributed to a two-run Texas A&M inning. But with Westmoreland again in control, USC fought back, and got its best slugger in position to do something about it.
After flying out on the first pitch with the bases loaded to end the fifth, Dantzler smoked his only pitch in the eighth into the right-center bullpen. He has nine round-trippers this season.
"He threw an 0-0 fastball," Dantzler said. "I wasn't trying to hit a home run, it just kind of happened. Last year, I kind of started slow and let that compound a bit. I just didn't let it bother me. I've never hit homers like this."
USC added two more when Dante Rosenberg's fly ball was lost in the sun, and Westmoreland and Webb tidied up. USC has two midweek games this week before heading to Tennessee for a series.
The Gamecocks didn't lose confidence after last week. They tweaked some things, and tried to get better.
"You just try to win each series," Holbrook said. "In this league, you don't think about sweep, because it rarely happens. This one today was just as important as Thursday and Friday was, and it will be just as important as next Friday. We'll try to win our next game."
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