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February 27, 2012

Pitchers, young guns flourish early



LB Dantzler is impressed.

Dantzler is one of South Carolina's top sluggers and currently leads the Gamecocks with two home runs and nine RBIs after six games.

But following Sunday's 6-0 whitewashing of Elon in which he walloped a towering three-run homer that helped complete an impressive three-game sweep over the Phoenix, Dantzler beamed the brightest when asked about the quality of USC's pitching.

"It's unbelievable. I've never seen a pitching staff like this," Dantzler said. "You have (Michael) Roth go out and we give up one hit on Friday and three hits Saturday and Sunday. It's awesome to be part of it. They've picked up the offense so far. Hopefully, they'll keep throwing like this. We know that if we score one or two runs, we're going to win."

The performance of the USC pitching staff through the first six games certainly deserves Dantzler's admiration. Currently, USC has a staff ERA of 0.83 with seven runs (five earned) and 18 hits allowed in 54 innings with 68 strikeouts and 12 walks.

"I'm happy with our pitching staff overall, in all areas," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "Having the experience we have is a big deal. Are they untouchable or first-round draft picks? Probably not. But they are very good college pitchers with experience. They will give you a chance most of the time if you play pretty good defense behind them."

USC's opponents are hitting a lowly .102 (18-for-177). The seven runs allowed by the Gamecocks' pitching staff through the first six games is the lowest run total to start a season since 1977, when the Gamecocks allowed just six runs in their first six games. Ten of the 14 USC pitchers that have seen action have not allowed an earned run.

Gamecock hurlers dominated Elon over the weekend, yielding just three hits and seven hits in the three-game sweep. Starters Roth, Matt Price and Colby Holmes combined to blank the defending Southern Conference champions on four hits in 17 2-3 innings while striking out 21 and walking seven.

Roth was named Co-SEC Pitcher of the Week on Monday after hurling seven no-hit (and scoreless) innings with seven strikeouts and three walks in USC's 8-1 win on Friday. Roth is 1-0 for the season with a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings with 13 strikeouts and three walks.

Holmes is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 10 2-3 innings with 12 strikeouts and three walks. He has allowed just four hits and no runs, earned or unearned. Opponents are batting .121 against him.

Three pitchers made their 2012 debuts for USC in the series against Elon - left-hander Nolan Belcher and right-hander Patrick Sullivan on Friday, and left-hander Vince Fiori on Sunday.

After six games, only two pitchers on the roster have failed to take the mound - left-handers Adam Westmoreland and Logan Munson.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Tanner English
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 3-0
OVERALL RECORD: 6-0 (0-0 SEC)
POLLS: No. 3 in Baseball America; No. 2 in Collegiate Baseball; No. 2 in NCBWA

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS
Feb. 24 USC 8, Elong 1
Feb. 25 USC 3, Elon 2
Feb. 26 USC 6, Elon 0

YOUNG GUNS: For the second straight Sunday, Tanner elected to start five true freshmen in a series finale - catcher Grayson Greiner, shortstop Joey Pankake, second baseman Connor Bright, left fielder TJ Costen and right fielder Tanner English all got starting nods in the 6-0 sweep-clinching win over Elon. In those two games featuring five freshmen starters, USC has outscored its opponents 19-1.

"They're getting a chance to get their feet wet," Tanner said on Sunday. "They're getting more comfortable. They'll have some bad at-bats. We have some new players, we have some veteran players. As I tell our guys all the time, regardless of what you're dealing with, good teams have to be able to win their games despite any circumstances you're dealing with. That was my pre-game message (Sunday)."

The five true freshmen starters on Sunday, together with freshman first baseman/designated hitter Kyle Martin, have combined to hit .307 (27-of-88) with one homer and 11 RBIs in the first six games.

Historically, Tanner has always been reluctant to heavily rely on freshmen. But this season could be different from previous seasons.

"I don't like it be reminded I'm playing so many young guys," Tanner joked. "It makes me nervous. But they're good, talented players. They're not guys who are lucky to be on the field. They're guys that have ability to be on the field. The key is helping them understand the game a little more and help them perform at this level. The more comfortable they get, the better they're going to play."

English (.333, seven hits, five RBIs) batted second in the order in all three games against Elon and collected four hits in 10 at-bats, including a key two-run triple on Sunday, to go along with some solid defensive play in the outfield. His running catch in right field for the first out of Sunday's game was one of the best catches by a Gamecock defender this season.

English has three strikeouts in 21 at-bats, a good start for the electric freshman as far as Tanner is concerned. The number shows he is making contact most of the time.

"One of the things he has done pretty well in the early going, he has not struck out excessively," Tanner said. "That was one of the things that got him in the fall as he got used to college pitching. He had a lot of strikeouts. To this point, he doesn't have a lot. If he continues to put the ball in play, and get a few hits and get a few bunts down, he'll give us an opportunity to score some runs."

English has strict instructions from Tanner and associate head coach Chad Holbrook when he goes to the plate - keep the ball on the ground or hit a line drive. In short, fly balls are unacceptable.

"Coach Tanner and coach Holbrook yell at me if I hit a ball above head-high," English said. "They just want me to keep hitting the ball on the ground. That's the biggest way I can help the team out. That's been the biggest adjustment for me, learning how to do that a little bit better."

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN, THEN CLEMSON: USC has four games scheduled this week, starting with Tuesday's 4 p.m. non-conference matchup with Presbyterian at Carolina Stadium. The Blue Hose fell to 0-7 when they were swept at Mercer this past weekend.

After facing Presbyterian, USC will prepare for the annual three-game weekend series against rival Clemson. The two teams play at 6 p.m. on Friday at Joe Riley Park in Charleston, followed by games Saturday (2 p.m.) at Carolina Stadium and Sunday (2 p.m.) at Clemson.

Clemson opened the 2012 season by winning two of three games in weekend series against UAB and Maine at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Both losses came on the Fridays.

Being a native of Florida, this weekend marks Dantzler's first exposure to the always intense USC-Clemson rivalry.

"Last year, I knew it was a rivalry, but being from Florida, I had no idea it was as big as it is," Dantzler said. "Coming into football season, everybody was talking about the rivalry. It was a lot bigger than I was anticipating. I think it's one of the biggest rivalries in all of college sports. It should be fun next weekend. But we have to pay attention to Presbyterian first."

NOTES:

* Junior left-hander Tyler Webb gave the Gamecocks a quality outing out of the bullpen for the second straight weekend. He tied a career-high with seven strikeouts in 3 2-3 innings of relief work on Saturday, allowing just one hit and two runs, both unearned.

* Christian Walker tied his career-high with five RBIs in Friday's 8-1 win. He reached base all four trips to the plate including two hits, one of them a homer. Walker carries a five-game hitting streak into Tuesday's game against Presbyterian. Walker leads USC with a .381 average (8-for-21) with a homer and eight RBIs.

* Junior outfielder Evan Marzilli has reached base safely in all six games and is hitting .333 (8-for-24) for the year with a team-high six runs scored. He also has two stolen bases and three RBIs.

* USC hitters are batting .292 (56-for-192) for the year with 35 runs scored (opponents have seven runs). The Gamecocks own a .349 on-base percentage and a .422 slugging percentage. Defensively, USC has played fairly clean in the field with a .982 fielding percentage with just four errors in six games.

* Connor Bright started the final two games of the Elon series at second base.

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D. McCallum


South Carolina NEWS

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