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April 8, 2011

USC-Tennessee Diamond Extra

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Ray Tanner could get used to this.

"We've been fortunate, two years in a row now," Tanner said after No. 3 South Carolina beat Tennessee 4-0 on Thursday. "Those guys have kept us in a position to win."

"Those guys" are his last two Friday-night pitchers - Blake Cooper last year and Michael Roth this year.

The Gamecocks (24-5, 8-2 SEC) improved to 19-3 over the past two seasons in opening games of series, all started by Cooper or Roth. The only losses were to Clemson and Florida last year, and to Georgia this year; despite those, the Gamecocks have gone on to win 17 of those series.

They're in line to win an 18th, if Colby Holmes and the rest of the Gamecocks can keep USC going on Friday in Game 2 of the Tennessee series.

Roth (7-1) baffled Volunteer hitters all evening with his assortment of breaking balls, especially a low curve that dives in on left-handed batters. He struck out four and only walked one while yielding six hits, three to shortstop Zach Osborne.

But he persevered and handed it over to Matt Price in the eighth. Price, backed up by the same defense that had aided Roth, came through with his eighth save when Christian Walker produced an unassisted double play in the ninth.

Roth appreciated the comparison to Cooper but isn't trying to be the Cooper replacement. He's simply trying to do what the coaches want him to - keep USC in position to win the first game of the series and thus not have to play from behind all weekend.

"I didn't really do anything different I haven't done the past however many games I've thrown," Roth said. "We just came out at them like always."

HURTING?: The question going into the series was whether or not USC would have many of its regulars available. Although Jackie Bradley Jr., Adam Matthews, Tyler Webb and Steven Neff each made the trip to Tennessee, all were questionable.

Thursday answered the question for two of them, and seemed to have at least a partial answer for a third.

Bradley Jr. started and played in center field, going 2-for-4 with a walk. Matthews didn't play in the field but started at designated hitter, going 0-for-4 with a walk.

"I just told myself after the Upstate game, I'm playing this weekend," Bradley Jr. said. "They ain't gonna stop me from playing. We just did a little rehab. He wanted me to stay away from stretching. Getting a lot of adrenaline going. I felt good out there today."

Tanner struggled with the decision, saying before the team left that although a player may be cleared medically, he would always trust the judgment of the player to make the final call. Bradley Jr. said he could play, so he played; Matthews said he could hit but didn't want to take chances of playing the field with a recovering strained hamstring.

"I wrestled with that thing all afternoon," Tanner said. "I trusted those guys. Medically, they were cleared to play. Actually, Jackie looked very healthy. Adam, on the other hand, is not quite there, but he convinced me that, 'I can control myself as far as running. I won't be as good in the outfield at making decisions, but I can do it swinging the bat.'"

Neff, who has missed recent starts with shoulder and bicep tightness, said before the game that he feels fine and could be able to pitch on Saturday in the series finale. Although Forrest Koumas is expected to start, Neff could relieve.

Webb will probably not pitch this weekend, but did throw a bullpen last night. His progress is good but when he will be cleared is unknown.

ARMS RACE: Tennessee's outfield of Charley Thurber, Chris Fritts and Andrew Toles each took turns showing off their arms, making several close plays on relays.

Thurber nearly threw out Bradley Jr., who had to slide in for a double, in the seventh inning. Thurber also drilled a bullet to third base trying to get Robert Beary in the sixth, but was just short.

Fritts had a huge play in the fifth, when Walker batted with one out and the bases loaded. Walker hit a high popup to shallow left-center and Peter Mooney prepared to tag up and run. He tagged but found himself looking up at the plate umpire's raised thumb when Fritts gunned a throw into catcher Matt Ramsey.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?: Adrian Morales was at the plate in the fourth when he took a 3-2 count. Tennessee coach Todd Raleigh came out to argue, saying the count was actually 2-2.

Umpires went to check the replay and confirmed it was 2-2. Morales worked a full count and then flew out to center.

FIRST PLACE: The Gamecocks, due to playing a day earlier than everybody else, moved into first place in the SEC East and the overall SEC by a half-game. At 8-2, USC leads Florida, Vanderbilt and Alabama as of Thursday night. The Gamecocks hold a tiebreaker over Florida, host Vanderbilt next week and travel to Alabama for the regular-season finale.

Vanderbilt and Alabama play each other this weekend. Florida is at Mississippi State.

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