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April 15, 2012

Diamond Extra: Sparkling defense spurs USC



Mississippi State's Mitch Slauter could only hang his head as he rounded second base and headed for third, knowing that he wasn't going to get to run home and instead had to keep jogging right into the dugout. The Gamecocks had brought their gloves on Saturday, and Slauter fully realized it.

Slauter launched a fly ball to left field that looked like it had a chance, only to see Tanner English fade back, stick his glove up and make the catch just before he slammed into the padding. In his next at-bat, Slauter cracked a shot to the gap that looked two bases for sure, but Evan Marzilli leaped, made the basket catch and hit the fence.

Marzilli also had a great catch during Friday's game, sticking his glove up with his back to the infield, nabbing a line drive and hitting the bullpen gate so hard that it remained yawning open for the rest of the game. MSU, meanwhile, couldn't buy a break - center fielder C.T. Bradford raced back for a line drive off English's bat, had it in his glove and then continued chasing as it kicked off the heel and to the ground.

STILL SEARCHING FOR J.T.: Just when it seemed as if USC had its middle relief issues resolved, along came Saturday. The Gamecocks won the game, but still remained searching for an answer to the biggest question from last year's championship run - who replaces the magnificent John Taylor?

It was so easy last season. Starter goes six, Taylor goes four or five outs, Matt Price finishes. Taylor had a school-record 50 appearances and was lights-out almost every time, coining the Gamecocks' radio crew's phrase of "Taylor and Price, and read the last rites."

Tyler Webb had begun to take over that role, becoming very sturdy and often spectacular early this season. He threw 2 1-3 innings in Friday's win, yielding just two hits and a run while striking out two. The Gamecocks went back to him on Saturday after starter Jordan Montgomery was tagged for a one-out home run from Trey Porter.

Ahead 5-1, Webb gave up a single to Tyler Fullerton and a hard shot to the fence from Sam Frost, a ball that bounced on the track and went over the bullpen gate for a ground-rule double. A sacrifice fly from Adam Frazier got the long-awaited second out, but it was suddenly 5-3.

Webb left, Evan Beal started. He lasted six pitches, walking Daryl Norris. That brought on Nolan Belcher, who recorded the last out, then Price earned the save with two innings of two-hit ball.

Webb finished the game and earned a save on Sunday.

SQUIRT: Tanner English seems to be settling into his spot in the order. Batting ninth in all three games, English battled back from a 1-for-4 performance with three strikeouts on Friday for a 3-for-4 RBI showing on Saturday and a 1-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt outing on Sunday.

English had a big knock on Saturday with the ball that kicked off Bradford's glove, and he sacrificed Chase Vergason to second base in the eighth inning of Sunday's game. That became a two-run inning.

English raised his average to .308, third on the team.

FINALLY: USC began the SEC season 1-5, but has gone 7-2 since to raise its record above .500 (8-7) for the first time this year. Coach Ray Tanner has not finished with a losing SEC record since 1997, his first year with the Gamecocks, although he has had three 15-15 campaigns.

ROAD WARRIOR-ED: MSU has no rest for its weary team. After getting swept by USC and falling into the depths of the SEC, the Bulldogs had to take an eight-hour bus trip back to Starkville. Originally scheduled to fly to Columbia, MSU had to take the bus after its charter flight had mechanical problems before the flight.

The Bulldogs have to head to Pearl, Miss., on Tuesday to play Ole Miss in a rivalry game that doesn't count toward the conference standings. Then they're back home on Thursday to start a series with Tennessee, MSU's turn on the ESPNU weekend package.

SEC STANDINGS
Team SEC Overall
SEC East
Kentucky 11-4 32-5
Florida 9-6 28-8
South Carolina 8-7 27-10
Georgia 7-8 22-14
Tennessee 7-8 21-15
Vanderbilt 6-9 16-20
SEC West
LSU 11-4 30-7
Arkansas 8-7 25-10
Auburn 7-8 19-16
Ole Miss 7-8 24-12
Mississippi State 5-10 21-15
Alabama 4-11 13-23
Sunday's games
LSU 5, Alabama 1
Vanderbilt 11, Auburn 2
Florida 8, Tennessee 1
South Carolina 6, Mississippi State 4
Next week's series
Vanderbilt at Alabama
Arkansas at Ole Miss
South Carolina at Auburn
Georgia at Florida
LSU at Kentucky
Tennessee at Mississippi State

SEC TOURNAMENT WATCH
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