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April 15, 2011

Showdown: No. 1 Vs. Defending Champs

NO. 1 VANDERBILT (31-3, 10-2 SEC) at NO. 3 SOUTH CAROLINA (26-6, 10-2)
When: 7 p.m. today, 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
TV: CSS (Saturday), ESPN2 (Sunday)
Probable starting pitchers: Vanderbilt - RHP Sonny Gray (today, 7-1, 1.54 ERA), LHP Grayson Garvin (Saturday, 6-1, 2.04), RHP Taylor Hill (Sunday, 2-0, 2.19). South Carolina -- LHP Michael Roth (today, 7-1, 1.25), RHP Colby Holmes (Saturday, 3-0, 3.00), RHP Forrest Koumas (Sunday, 4-0, 1.91)
Notes: South Carolina leads the overall series 42-18 and has won the last two series. … The Gamecocks and Commodores have each won their first four SEC series. The series winner will have at least a tie for first place in the overall league, depending on how Florida (9-3) does against Georgia. … USC's record for consecutive SEC series wins in a season is seven, set last year. Its record for SEC series won in a season is nine, set in 2002. … Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin is a former Clemson assistant. … The Commodores have the SEC's top-ranked pitching staff and offense. They have won their last 11 games. … The Gamecocks lost their last game, a 2-0 midweek setback at The Citadel. … The Commodores have two major-league bloodlines on their roster. Jack Armstrong is the son of former major-league pitcher Jack Armstrong, and Mike Yastrzemski is the grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.
Next up: USC plays at College of Charleston at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.



"Why do we have to keep playing No. 1?," coach Ray Tanner jokingly complained on Thursday.

Worked out pretty well the last time.

Third-ranked South Carolina takes on its second No. 1 team of the season beginning tonight when Vanderbilt (31-3, 10-2 SEC) comes to town. The three-game series, with two of the games on TV, is one of the most intriguing matchups in the country this weekend and offers a mid-season chance for supremacy to the victor.

A series sweep gives the winner first place in the SEC East and the overall league by at least a game, depending on the results of the Florida-Georgia series. There will be five SEC series remaining in any case, plenty of time for the series loser to play catch-up, but the Gamecocks (26-6, 10-2) deeply want to be pursued instead of pursuing.

It was only three weeks ago that the Gamecocks went to Florida, ranked No. 1 at the time, and took two of three games. As the Commodores slid into the Gators' former spot, USC noticed the impending matchup.

Now that it's here, they want to keep doing the same things that have won their past seven conference games and pushed them into the top spot along with Vanderbilt.

"Obviously they're No. 1, they're a great team. Should be a great series," first baseman Christian Walker said. "(Beating Florida) definitely gives us some confidence. I think we deserve to win it."

It wasn't that long ago that USC beat Vanderbilt like it was a vendetta. The Gamecocks won 21 straight games over the Commodores from 1997 to 2003, but then Vandy began to show the turnaround promised by new coach Tim Corbin.

Corbin, hired for the 2003 season, began to work the same approach that had made tiny Presbyterian College into a very strong baseball team and had kept a dominant program at Clemson going. Scouring the country for pitchers, Corbin began to put prize arm after prize arm onto his mound.

It's no different this weekend. Sonny Gray is a sure first-round pick in the next draft and has won seven of his eight decisions. His two followers, Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill, feature similar credentials, and the rest of the Commodores' staff have combined for the SEC's lowest ERA, opponents' batting average and highest number of strikeouts.

Vanderbilt is also ranked atop the SEC in offense, hitting .313 as a team and batting better in conference play than it has in non-conference games. The Commodores are loaded and are ready to take that elusive next step into national prominence. While Vanderbilt has had some fine teams, it has only reached one Super Regional in its history and has never gone to the College World Series.

The Commodores could be the next big thing, but standing in their way is the current one. Just as Florida did three weeks ago, Vanderbilt holds the country's top ranking - but the opponent holds the most recent national championship trophy and isn't willing to be content with just one.

The Gamecocks have also relied on their pitching to carry them, finding a gem in Friday starter Michael Roth and despite losing other starters to injury, filling in with eager pitchers ready to continue the legacy. Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas, each riding strings of successful appearances, will once again follow Roth into a series as USC attempts to pull off another win over No. 1.

"When we played Florida, they were playing well, they were outstanding in all facets of the game," Tanner said. "Vanderbilt, right now, appears to be even stronger.

"The good news is, with our cast of characters, our players, we don't fear anyone. We respect everyone, but we don't fear anybody."

The Gamecocks are coming off a putrid offensive performance, losing 2-0 at The Citadel on Tuesday and going 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, which triggered concerns about how the bats were going to hit the SEC's best pitching staff. Tanner said a key to winning the series would be to find the big hits, but USC is hoping some answers will be found by having a regular back in the lineup.

Third baseman Adrian Morales, the team's second-leading hitter, will play this weekend after missing The Citadel game with a sprained ligament in his wrist. The wrist is still sore but Morales, who argued with Tanner throughout The Citadel game to put him in, will fight through it.

"I should be ready to go this weekend," Morales said.

Adam Matthews is also close to 100 percent after recovering from a strained hamstring and could return to his leadoff role. The Gamecocks also could get a few innings of relief pitching from Steven Neff, who also recently returned from injury, and perhaps something else.

"He's been activated as a position player," Tanner said of Neff. "He took some swings yesterday, he's very athletic in the outfield. If you happen to see him run out there, it won't be a complete shock."

The Gamecocks did lose their last game, while Vanderbilt has won its last 11, but the past or future doesn't matter beginning at 7 p.m. Two top teams are battling to be the top team after three games.

"It's not going to be a David and Goliath," Tanner said. "Our guys think they should win. But that doesn't mean you have to feel like it's an upset if you win a game. They're not interested in hearing that kind of talk."

NOTE: Outfielder Jake Williams remains suspended indefinitely, although there may be a reprieve coming soon. Williams was twice cited for transporting alcohol to a minor last Sunday and did not travel to The Citadel on Tuesday, but Tanner said that while Williams is "probably" out for the series and "unlikely" to play, there are a "couple of variables" that could get Williams' suspension lifted in time for him to play against the Commodores.

"If it gets lifted, it'll be lifted before (today's) game," Tanner said.

The Gamecocks have to designate their 27-man roster for conference series before the umpires' meeting tonight. Once it's set, USC cannot add or remove a player for the duration of the series.

Tanner did not go into further detail on what variables could get Williams off suspension, and when asked if it would be him who made the call, replied, "Not necessarily."

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