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March 18, 2012

USC-Kentucky Diamond Extra

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Another game, another rash of missed opportunities.

South Carolina does not want to get used to this.

"I don't think we're struggling that much," first baseman Christian Walker said after Saturday's 4-3 loss at Kentucky. "Just untimely hits. Ground balls when you need line drives or fly balls. We had three double plays in the first four innings. Sometimes, it just doesn't go your way, and we've got to play better."

It was easy for Walker to say. After the weekend, Walker was hitting .338, the best average on the team among the regular position players, despite going 0-for-5 during Sunday's 6-3 loss at Kentucky. He's doing fine, as is leadoff hitter Evan Marzilli.

It's the rest that are struggling.

USC continues to hit well for average and smacked 31 base knocks against the Wildcats. The problem was, only nine runs cross the plate, which compared with Kentucky's 14 runs (on 26 hits), led to a series sweep and an 0-3 SEC beginning.

"Slowly, we're starting to hit the ball better," Walker said. "Sometimes it just doesn't go your way."

USC's struggles seem to be in two main areas. One, coach Ray Tanner simply doesn't know what his best lineup is because all have run hot and cold with the bat (outside of Walker and Marzilli). Two, whoever's in there is having a hard time moving the guy on base in front of them over.

Sacrifice bunts aren't getting down often enough. While Tanner encourages his batters to be aggressive and swing at the first pitch - since between Pitch 1 and Pitch 2 of any at-bat, a batter is likely to see a fastball - many of those pitches are being grounded into outs or double plays.

Gone are the days when the Gamecocks could depend on the three-run home run to bail them out. They're lucky to get a solo shot these days.

"We're trying to find some way to go," Tanner said, with a flustered shake of the head. "We're getting our share of hits but not really getting the runs. And that's sort of through how many games we've played … we've been in that three, four range that entire year."

Tanner is facing some hard choices. LB Dantzler has noticeably cooled with the bat but will stay in at third base. Adam Matthews is fighting to keep his head above water, off to a bad start in his senior year. Tanner English only seems to hit when he's low in the order, depriving the Gamecocks of a natural leadoff man.

The 16th-year coach is still playing a carousel at second base, because with the bats the way they are, he can't definitely sacrifice offense for defense. Chase Vergason is probably the best defensive second-sacker on the team, but he's hitting .158 and was left at home for the Kentucky trip (low average, left-handed bat against three left-handed starting pitchers). Connor Bright isn't hitting well enough to be out there, and TJ Costen is best in the outfield, not at second as originally planned.

That only leaves Erik Payne, who is not a natural second baseman but hits the ball pretty well. With a pretty solid bat there, Tanner can play with catchers Dante Rosenberg and Grayson Greiner, one behind the plate and one at designated hitter, while also thinking of Kyle Martin.

The rest, he's hoping, will come around.

Even if he has to jump-start the process with an unexpected move.

"I'm even contemplating putting (Michael) Roth in there in some capacity," Tanner said. "He's going to go up there and hack. Brian Johnson's doing it at Florida, might as well give Michael Roth a chance."

Roth smacked a pinch-hit double during Saturday's loss and has never been quiet about his desire to hit. He's batting 1.000, although Saturday was his only at-bat of the season.

Pitching coach Jerry Meyers may not like his All-American Friday starter batting in other games, but the Gamecocks need something. Roth can be as hot-headed and emotional in the locker room as he is laid-back and loose in the press conferences - USC needs some kind of spark to wake themselves up.

CELEK? Some eyebrows were raised on Sunday when Tanner, down three runs with two on in the eighth inning, pinch-hit Brison Celek for Marzilli. Celek has more straight power than Marzilli, but has hardly played in three years on the team - Sunday was just his eighth at-bat of the season and 16th of his career.

Celek grounded the first pitch he saw to second base for the rally-ending out. Tanner explained it as taking a chance - that he would choose Celek proved how desperate USC is for some kind of big hit.

"I'm thinking, 'One pitch to get this thing tied up,'" Tanner said. "The last thing in the world I want to do is pinch-hit for Marzilli, but in that particular instance, we're trying to get back into it with one swing."

Looking back on it, there was really no other option. The Gamecocks were trailing three runs with a man on third base, not one. If it was one, Marzilli would have been the logical choice to try and get a base knock.

But the Gamecocks needed three runs to tie the game, with four outs to play with. The wind was blowing out to left, and Marzilli, a lefty, would have had to try and lift a ball into that and get it to carry over the right-field wall. Ditto for Kyle Martin, the freshman slugger.

Celek was a right-hander. Tanner gambled and lost.

"It was going to be very difficult for Evan to hit a ball on that side of the field," he said. "Everything was holding up over there. You're just taking a chance there, one swing of the bat."

CARTER: The status of Ethan Carter remains unchanged. Carter, who was in uniform for all three games at Kentucky but did not play, remains indefinitely suspended following an arrest last week.

Tanner said the situation was unchanged and would remain that way as USC finished its protocol. The next order of business is for Carter to meet with athletic director Eric Hyman. Hyman and Tanner can then discuss a resolution.

It's the second alcohol-related offense for Carter at USC, with the first helping get him dismissed from the team after his freshman season. He was given a second chance, Tanner saying that the junior would have to walk a straight line to remain.

Tanner admitted he knew of an incident last week but didn't know it was an arrest. He didn't find out that part of the story until Carter was already on the trip.

UGH: USC was last swept in an SEC series in 2009, at Florida. The Gamecocks were last swept to start the SEC season in 1998, but it was only two games. Before then, USC was last swept in a three-game series to begin the SEC season in 1992, the Gamecocks' first year in the league.

USC also continued a sour history at Kentucky. USC had split series in Lexington in 2009 and 2010, but before that, USC lost a series in 2006 (swept), 2004 (2-1), 1998 (2-1), 1996 (swept) and 1995 (2-1).

LONG STRETCH: USC will take Monday off and then play five games in five days. The Gamecocks are on a stretch of eight games in nine days.

Beginning with Sunday's game at Kentucky, USC is also on a stretch of six straight televised games.

EXTENDED: Marzilli has reached base in every game this season.

LUCK OF THE IRISH?: Was Tanner trying to channel something extra on St. Patrick's Day (Saturday) by starting Sean Sullivan in right field? Doubtful. Sullivan started because right fielder Adam Matthews struck out four times on Friday.

Sullivan had a sacrifice bunt, grounded into a double play and struck out. His younger brother Patrick Sullivan didn't get in the game but was warming up late. Patrick pitched on Sunday.

TUESDAY/WEDNESDAY: While no definite starting pitchers were announced for Tuesday's game vs. Furman at Greenville's Fluor Field and on Wednesday hosting Wofford, Adam Westmoreland and Jordan Montgomery are expected to be strong candidates. They started USC's two midweek games this week, and stayed home from the Kentucky trip.

Team SEC Overall
SEC East
Florida 3-0 19-1
Kentucky 3-0 21-0
Georgia 2-1 15-6
Tennessee 1-2 11-8
South Carolina 0-3 15-4
Vanderbilt 0-3 7-13
SEC West
Arkansas 3-0 19-2
Auburn 2-1 12-8
LSU 2-1 16-4
Mississippi State 1-2 15-8
Ole Miss 1-2 15-5
Alabama 0-3 8-12
Saturday's games
Kentucky 4, South Carolina 3
Arkansas 8, Alabama 4
Auburn 10, Ole Miss 4
Florida 5, Vanderbilt 1
Georgia 10, Tennessee 5
LSU 4, Mississippi State 3
Sunday's games
Florida 8, Vanderbilt 2
Mississippi State 7, LSU 1
Arkansas 7, Alabama 4
Kentucky 6, South Carolina 3
Tennessee 3, Georgia 0
Auburn 3, Ole Miss 2

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