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April 16, 2012

Look Back, Look Ahead: Road beckons



Later, when reflecting on the 2012 season, an improbable and dramatic two-out, four-run rally could be viewed as the turning point for South Carolina.

Two days after losing to Division II Francis Marion, the Gamecocks jump-started a weekend sweep over Mississippi State by mounting an impressive surge in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 1, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when they were four outs away from another SEC loss.

In the process, the Gamecocks kept alive their hopes of earning a top-eight national seed, and staved off the skeptics for at least another week.

With an 8-7 conference mark, USC probably needs to win a minimum of 10 of its last 15 league games to have any realistic chance of garnering a national seed when NCAA Regionals selection time arrives.

Accomplishing that won't be easy since three of USC's next four series are on the road - Auburn (April 20-22), Arkansas (May 4-6) and Georgia (May 11-13). The lone home series in that month-long stretch is April 26-28, when USC faces lowly Alabama.

For now, though, USC will savor its first conference sweep of the season, and its first over Mississippi State since 2008.

As usual, pitching led the way, although the bats contributed as well with 31 hits during the weekend set, including Grayson Greiner's solo homer with two outs in the bottom of the eighth in Game 1 that launched the stunning four-run outburst that left Mississippi State dazed.

Jordan Montgomery (3-0) and Colby Holmes (5-0) both remained undefeated on the season with solid performances. Together, they limited MSU to 13 hits and five runs in 14 2-3 innings with seven strikeouts and only two walks. Holmes didn't walk a single batter on Sunday when he fell two outs short of hurling USC's first complete game of the season.

In his last two starts totaling 15 1-3 innings, Holmes has allowed five runs on 12 hits with three strikeouts and, most importantly, zero walks. In short, he hasn't beaten himself.

"The biggest thing is I've gotten my changeup working early," Holmes said. "I've been able to throw it for strikes and been able to make them chase. The changeup is the biggest thing that has contributed to my two wins in the last two starts."

Holmes is 14-3 in three seasons at USC with a respectable career ERA of 3.73. This season, he has allowed 39 hits and 17 runs in 47 innings with 37 strikeouts.

Montgomery, a freshman from Sumter, has solidified Saturday's starting spot with consecutive quality outings in his first two SEC starts. He allowed just two runs and eight hits with 11 strikeouts in 14 1-3 innings against Tennessee and Mississippi State.

Montgomery will carry a 2.48 ERA, an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio (31-4) and an opponents' batting average of .206 into his next start at Auburn this weekend.

Evan Marzilli (.307, team-high 30 runs scored) and true freshmen Tanner English (.308) and Joey Pankake (.310, team-high nine doubles) led the USC offense against the Bulldogs with five hits apiece. English was 5-of-11 (.455) for the highest series batting average and scored four runs.

Tanner's decision to move Pankake to the leadoff spot and bat Marzilli second as a way to ignite the lethargic USC offense paid dividends.

"We had to come out and win some games this weekend and we had to go get it," Marzilli said. "I thought we did a good job doing that. We made some big strides this weekend."

USC hit .313 (31-for-99) in the weekend sweep over Mississippi State to raise its team batting average to .277 (344-for-1240) on the year. South Carolina is also fielding .977 as a team, with just 31 errors in 37 games.

Offensive and defensive improvement have keyed USC's three straight series wins.

"We're getting some better swings off," Tanner said. "That's been the key. You have to battle and be aggressive. If you hit enough balls hard, some of them will fall for you. Then you're going to get some tweeners and get some bunts down. That's the difference where we are right now and where we've been. We're attacking a little better. Mississippi State had some good arms out there this weekend."

English had a key triple in Game 2's 5-3 victory, while Pankake delivered a two-run single in the bottom of the eighth in Game 3 that appeared at the time to be nothing more than a couple of insurance runs.

But, those runs ended up being the difference in the game as Mississippi State rallied in the top of the ninth with two runs and had the go-ahead run at the plate.

But left-hander Tyler Webb, who appeared in all three contests (3 1-3 innings) shut the door and sealed the sweep by retiring both batters he faced, although the final out (deep fly to right) had the capacity crowd holding its breath for a second.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Colby Holmes
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 3-1
OVERALL RECORD: 27-10 (8-7 SEC)

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS
April 10 vs. The Citadel, W 8-0
April 11 at Francis Marion, L 5-4
April 13 vs. Mississippi State, W 7-6
April 14 vs. Mississippi State, W 5-3
April 15 vs. Mississippi State, W 6-4

SEC ROAD BECKONS AS USC CLIMBS OUT OF HOLE: By sweeping Mississippi State, the Gamecocks are now over the .500 mark (8-7) in the conference for the first time this season. But it wasn't easily climbing out of the early 1-5 hole to win seven of nine league contests.

Before heading to Auburn, USC must face former assistant Monte Lee and College of Charleston on Tuesday at Carolina Stadium. Two weeks ago, the Gamecocks made the trip to Patriots Point and came away with a 7-0 whitewashing of the Cougars.

"I still think this team can play better than we've played," Tanner said. "We haven't played terribly. We've been solid. We've pitched well and played pretty good defense. We're a little bit older now. We started young, but these guys have played a lot of baseball. Hopefully, we'll hit one of those strides in the last 18 or 19 games."

Thursday, USC will make the six-hour trip to the Plains to face the struggling Auburn Tigers. Since opening conference play with impressive series wins over Ole Miss, LSU and Mississippi State, Auburn has fallen flat with an embarrassing sweep at the hands of bitter rival Alabama (the Crimson Tide are 1-11 against the rest of the SEC) and a series loss at Vanderbilt this past weekend.

"I think some of our guys are breathing a little bit easier," Tanner said. "We've been playing uphill since the Kentucky series. Now we're over the .500 mark. Hopefully, it will help us and we can relax and not feel so much pressure all the time.

"But we put ourselves in that position. We have five series left and it's not going to be easy with three of them on the road. But now we're in the mix with everybody else. Before, we were looking up."

As a result, all the positive vibes generated from a solid 6-3 start have evaporated into a 7-8 conference mark and tie for third place in the SEC West with Ole Miss behind LSU (11-4) and Arkansas (8-7).

Parity in the SEC? Six of the 12 conference teams are either 8-7 or 7-8, including the Gamecocks and Tigers. Historically, USC has dominated the rivalry with Auburn, surprisingly capturing 12 straight series over a program that has put a fair number of players into the major leagues.

"I feel like our team is starting to mesh together a little more," Marzilli said. "We've had a young team and we've had to learn how to play together. This weekend, some guys started doing some good things."

THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE:
April 17 vs. College of Charleston, 7 p.m. (Fox SportSouth)
April 20 at Auburn, 7 p.m.
April 21 at Auburn, 4 p.m. (SportSouth)
April 22 at Auburn, 2 p.m.

NOTES

* Christian Walker, who was 2-for-9 in the Mississippi State series with three RBIs, continues to lead USC in most of the major offensive categories: Batting average (.346), homers (seven), RBIs (38), total bases (74), slugging percentage (.556) and walks (26). He is tied with Marzilli for most hits (46).

* Greiner (.240) has 23 hits this season, but 12 have been for extra bases, including four homers and eight doubles. His slugging percentage is a respectable .448, third-highest among the regulars. He is also second on the club with 20 walks.

* Matt Price picked up two saves over the weekend in the wins on Friday (7-6) and Saturday (5-3). After USC seized the lead in breathtaking fashion in Game 1, Price hurled a perfect inning of relief and followed that up with two scoreless innings in Game 2. Price is now 3-3 with three saves and a 2.93 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 46 innings pitched and opponents are hitting only .159 against him, the top OBA mark in the SEC.

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D. McCallum


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