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April 11, 2011

Weekend Series Looming for Gamecocks

Matt Price and Forrest Koumas each grinned at the question. Perhaps because they each had a ready-made answer.

In the bag of baseball clichés, there's only one reply when someone asks about a lengthy winning streak, like the nine-game tally No. 3 South Carolina currently owns.

"We've just got to take it one game at a time," Price said.

"It's only one game at a time," Koumas said.

It's good advice, because looking past an opponent in any sport is an invitation to disaster. The Gamecocks certainly know that their next order of business is at The Citadel on Tuesday.

But it's probably not off-base to think it will be extremely hard not to think about what's looming this weekend.

The Gamecocks (26-5, 10-2 SEC) had a day off on Sunday after their series at Tennessee began on Thursday. USC swept the Volunteers, then enjoyed a rare Sunday off.

Some were probably tuned into the live feed of Sunday's Vanderbilt-Alabama game, won by the Commodores 11-6. That set up the matchup many were looking forward to - a mid-season test for SEC supremacy that should play a major role in tournament seeding and perhaps regional selection.

Beginning Friday at Carolina Stadium, No. 1 Vanderbilt and No. 3 South Carolina play for first place in the league. The series winner will emerge from the fifth league weekend of the year with at least a tie for first place in the SEC East and overall league.

Should be a good one.

The national rankings for each team should stay the same. Vanderbilt went 4-0 this week and swept Alabama, meaning there's no reason to drop the Commodores from the top spot. USC also went 4-0 this week and swept Tennessee, meaning if it's going anywhere, it's up.

The country's second-ranked team, Virginia, went 3-1 but its one loss was to No. 14 Georgia Tech in a series the Cavaliers won. While the Gamecocks have an outside shot of moving into the No. 2 spot, it's doubtful Virginia would drop after suffering only its third loss of the season, to a ranked team, in a series it won anyway.

Still, the USC-Vandy series will be plenty powerful even without a 1-2 matchup. While Florida is 9-3 in the SEC and plays Georgia this weekend, the best it can be is 12-3 after Sunday's games. Either the Gamecocks or Commodores will at least be 12-3 as well with a series win, or 13-2 with a sweep.

For USC, being on top of the East halfway through the slate, with tiebreakers over the other top two teams in the East, would place it in the driver's seat for the regular-season championship. A division champion and regular-season champion in the SEC would virtually assure it of being a national seed and thus having home-field advantage in the NCAA tournament.

Vanderbilt's elite rotation of Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill, plus a relentless bullpen, will be matched against USC's collection of scrappers. Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas may not be lighting up draft projections (yet), but they've become a three-armed monster over the past three weeks. Every one is fully capable of pitching well into the seventh or eighth innings, which means the bullpen gates open and the "Nasty Boys" duo of John Taylor and Price can work their magic.

Last year's series was tightly contested until USC claimed the Sunday win, taking the series 2-1 and clinching coach Ray Tanner's 1,000th career victory. The Gamecocks' pitching staff was able to contain one of the best offenses in the league on its home field.

Vandy has improved, as USC has replaced some key parts but is still winning many more than it loses. While there will be five SEC series left to play after this weekend, this will be the one many remember.

But only after Tuesday's game.

Of course.

SEC STANDINGS
Team SEC Overall
SEC East

South Carolina 10-2 26-5
Vanderbilt 10-2 30-3
Florida 9-3 26-7
Georgia 8-4 18-15
Kentucky 2-10 16-17
Tennessee 2-10 19-13
SEC West
Alabama 7-5 21-13
Arkansas 6-6 23-8
Auburn 5-7 18-14
Mississippi State 5-7 21-11
Ole Miss 5-7 20-13
LSU 3-9 21-11
This week's games
Tuesday
Mississippi Valley State at Alabama
Florida at Florida State
Georgia at Georgia Tech
Kentucky at Louisville
South Carolina at The Citadel
Ole Miss at Southern Miss
Appalachian State at Tennessee
Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee State
Wednesday
Mississippi Valley State at Alabama
Arkansas at Missouri State
Alcorn State at LSU
Weekend
Tennessee at Alabama
Mississippi State at Arkansas
Auburn at LSU
Florida at Georgia
Kentucky at Ole Miss
Vanderbilt at South Carolina

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