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April 20, 2011

USC-College of Charleston Diamond Extra

MT. PLEASANT - The good news - South Carolina, again, found a way to win.

The not-so-good news - the second-ranked Gamecocks' midweek pitching and bullpen is no closer to being settled than it has been.

Tyler Webb again got a chance to prove he can handle a starting role and again didn't, leaving in the second inning of Tuesday's 8-3 win over College of Charleston. The bullpen went through Jose Mata, Bryan Harper and Patrick Sullivan before Steven Neff and John Taylor locked down the victory, giving the Gamecocks (29-7) another win but also some concerns.

With only 20 games left in the regular season, now is the time to know who is the team's best 1-2-3 punch for a weekend rotation and who are the best 4-5 roles for backups. These are the answers that come into play in the postseason, where one loss means two or three extra games.

The Gamecocks have their starting rotation set, with Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas.

The rest is a jumble of who can do what at any particular time, with no clearly defined names.

Webb started after getting back into a role during the Vanderbilt series, but gave up an off-the-fence RBI double to Rob Kral three batters in. The Gamecocks scored three runs to make it 3-1 USC by the second, but then Webb came out and gave up a leadoff home run to Daniel Aldrich and a single to Rob Harding.

The sophomore was done after that, leaving in favor of Mata. Mata gave up two straight singles, the last an RBI to Jamie Holler, that tied the game.

Mata, Harper and Sullivan each fell into repetitive traps of falling behind every batter, making it seem like a constant 2-0 count for every Cougar that stepped in. Neff and Taylor held Charleston (23-15) down after USC scored four runs in the seventh inning, but it still took that long to make it comfortable.

Taylor and Matt Price have been golden from the bullpen. The weekend trio has been wonderful as well.

The midweek and rare long relief appearances - Adam Westmoreland and Logan Munson figure in there as well - have not been. It's not the kind of thing that coaches still want to be figuring out as the most important time of the season looms. While the others have been grand, and there's no reason to worry as long as they continue to be grand, there's always the knowledge that even Cy Young could have a bad day.

A bad day in the postseason means somebody else has to shoulder the weight. Roth did a fine job last year, but who will be this season's Roth?

EXPLOSION: College of Charleston pitching coach Matt Heath was ejected and suspended for Wednesday's game at USC Upstate following a tirade in the seventh inning, when he was first thrown out of the game for arguing a call and then went into a lengthy screaming fit.

Heath first kicked a stand holding his pitching charts onto the field, then stomped onto the diamond from the dugout and went nose-to-nose with an umpire. He bumped the umpire's chest, a strict no-no in any league, and then did the same to another umpire.

Security was finally called to escort Heath off the field, although he bellowed a few more choice words back at the umpires as he was being led away. The Southern Conference rule automatically suspended Heath for a game (if ejected during a non-conference game, the coach must sit out the next non-conference game; if ejected in a conference game, he must sit the next conference game), but more punishment may be forthcoming.

Coming into contact with umpires is considered an automatic cause for multi-game suspension, and the SoCon has stricter rules than many other leagues. Heath's punishment is yet to be determined outside of a suspension for the Upstate game.

The argument was the second of the inning and the final of many during the game. Cougars head coach Monte Lee was out arguing a ground ball that he thought was interference and led to two Gamecock runs that broke open the game, and also a balk that got both of the runners in position to score.

"That was a little explosion, right there," USC second baseman Scott Wingo said. "I thought he was about to stick the umpire for a second. I think he thought (Christian) Walker might have touched the shortstop, I think that's what he was mad about. I talked to Walker and he said he didn't touch him."

Previously, USC coach Ray Tanner was out to discuss a fifth-inning double play where second baseman Harding bobbled a grounder, tagged Steven Neff running to second and then threw to first. Peter Mooney was ruled out on the play, although he seemed to have clearly beaten the throw. First-base coach Sammy Esposito protested the call, as did Tanner.

"I went out there and I thought Mooney had beaten that," Tanner said. "Balls that hit the chalk, didn't hit the chalk, a near-interference call. Those guys work hard, they try to do a good job, but you got two teams trying to win and coaches, you have to battle a little bit. That's all it is."

Tanner and Lee also met on the USC side of the field before the sixth inning, with plate umpire John Puma. Tanner said they were discussing the ins and outs of the designated hitter/pitcher substitution rule, which came in handy for each team - USC used Neff as its DH and pitcher while Charleston's Dre Watts also played each role.

BROKEN: USC's nine-game streak of playing error-less ball was snapped with two miscues on Tuesday. Catcher Brady Thomas was ruled to have interfered with Cole Rakar in the sixth (considered an error) and Walker dropped a throw to allow Watts first base in the eighth.

The Gamecocks were bidding to tie a school record of 13 straight games without an error, set in 2006.

LEATHER: Wingo continues to show why he's one of the best defenders in the country, turning several tough plays into routine outs. The senior co-captain short-circuited a Charleston rally in the eighth by recording two outs when the first two runners reached.

Marty Gantt smacked a ball that looked destined for an RBI until Wingo went far to his left, plucked and threw to Walker on the bag. Then Kral dribbled a grounder that died in the grass; Wingo charged, picked it up with his bare hand and threw in one motion to get the play.

"I just try to get better every day, keep taking ground balls," Wingo said. "I probably shouldn't have barehanded that ball. Guy, I found out later, is pretty slow."

TRAVEL: Injured outfielder Adam Matthews was on the travel roster for the game, wearing his uniform although he was on crutches. The junior's re-strained hamstring may have him shelved for the season's remainder. Another injured player, Nolan Belcher, also made the trip.

Missing were a couple of no-surprise players, freshmen Patrick Harrington and Drake Thomason. Each are recovering from offseason injuries, Harrington a redshirt candidate and a decision on whether or not to use Thomason nearing.

Also missing were Price, who wasn't going to be used on Tuesday and left home in order not to tempt fate, and suspended outfielder Jake Williams. Williams has missed five games but could return for the weekend.

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