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April 16, 2012

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: MSU



GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger breaks down the best, worst and plain nastiest moments from No. 10 South Carolina's 3-0 series win over Mississippi State.

NO. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA 7-5-6, MISSISSIPPI STATE 6-3-4
(USC wins series 3-0)


THE GOOD

BACK IN POSITION: I know it's hard to believe, but South Carolina fans were doing their usual lemming impression after a 1-5 SEC start. They're only happy when they're unhappy, and after seeing the back-to-back national champions drop five of their first six SEC games, they began to trot off the ledge into the abyss of whiny messages and anonymous e-mails. Suddenly, all is quiet in Gamecock land. USC responded to that 1-5 start with a 7-2 record over its past three series, winning all of them and sweeping Mississippi State this past weekend. The SEC standings are so jumbled that USC is squarely in the mix for a potential run at the league championship, although that will take some stumbles from Kentucky and Florida (which each hold tiebreakers over USC) and LSU (which USC plays to finish the regular season). But even if they don't - and it should be noted, tiebreakers are only used for SEC tournament seeding. A tie at the end of the regular season awards a banner, trophy and title to however many teams tie, as Vanderbilt, Florida and USC were all SEC East and SEC regular-season champs last year - the Gamecocks are in great position. It's all about putting yourself in position for the postseason, as in, staying home for it. USC would be a definite host for an NCAA Regional if the postseason began today, and with an RPI of seven and a Top-10 national ranking, would be on the short list for one of the precious eight national seeds (thus assuring a Super Regional host). It's great to win a championship, but if a championship doesn't happen, staying home for the postseason is a very nice substitute, especially at USC. Historically, the Gamecocks have played 18 postseason tournaments in Columbia. They've won 16.

I CARE: Plate umpire Mark Chapman had barely finished signaling safe before Ray Tanner was sprinting from the dugout, getting in Chapman's face about the call. Mitch Slauter appeared to sneak a foot in under Dante Rosenberg's tag, the tag only brushing Slauter's head, and it tied the game. Tanner was livid about it, pointing out that in the ensuing dust-up, when Slauter appeared to be trying to step on the plate, that if the runner was safe, why was he still trying to score? The 16th-year skipper got his money's worth, and cheerfully admitted afterward that the thought crossed his mind before he ran out - maybe this would be a good time to get ejected, see if the team could rally around it. It would have only been the third time since he's been at USC that Tanner would have been run, but he kept his cool and returned to the dugout. Outstanding to see that in a year where buttons need to be pushed, Tanner has his fingers ready to push, or to act like he would if he had to. Sometimes, talent isn't enough to rely on.

WORM TURNING: Luck went the Gamecocks' way so often over the past two years that it was often expected to see a jersey with the nameplate (over No. 7, of course), hanging in the dugout. It began to find the opponents more and more often this year, but the MSU series showed that Lady Luck may still be inhabiting a few corners of Carolina Stadium. Immediately after MSU took a 2-1 lead on Sunday, LB Dantzler hit a shot to third base that looked tailor-made for a double-play inning-ender. Instead, Daryl Norris couldn't pick up the ball, couldn't even step on third for one out, and the rally lived. USC took the lead and never looked back. And this was after Friday, when the Gamecocks scored four runs in the eighth to win, the last to on a flare from Sean Sullivan (21 at-bats, at the time) that eluded a diving Brent Brownlee. Little bit of luck that the hit dropped, but not that it was put in play. Sullivan spent the past few years playing at Winthrop, in Rock Hill, so that athletic grace must have rubbed off on him.

EVERYDAY EVAN: How about Evan Marzilli? Keeps showing up and doing something good, every day, every game. While his streak of getting on base ended last week, he continues to get a few base knocks every game, and his defense in center really shone this weekend. He had two fence-crashing catches, one that knocked the bullpen gate awry for the duration of that game, and then he stole his team-high seventh base of the season on a straight steal attempt, something that gets about as much play around USC as Jimmy Buffett does on my stereo. He's the kind of "glue" guy that every team needs. Think Robert Beary with no outlandish stories.

THE 2-3: How special have Jordan Montgomery and Colby Holmes been? Two more brilliant performances from the back ends of USC's rotation, as Friday-night man Michael Roth is experiencing a bit of trouble. Montgomery, nicknamed "Gumby," continues to flash solid off-speed and breaking stuff from the left side, while Holmes is now 5-0 and hasn't walked anybody in two straight starts. The two will always be on call, just for situations like this year. Roth has been good, but not great, and the Gamecocks need to know that they can pick him up.

SQUIRT: Tanner "Squirt" English, as he has now been publicly labeled, is hitting .308 and becoming a good table-setter at the bottom of the lineup. He also had a tremendous catch in left field, hauling it in and smashing his shoulder into the wall. This is the player that Tanner recruited.



THE BAD

MICHAEL: Michael Roth is in no danger of losing his position. He's earned that spot. But it would be nice to see him get back to being dominant after a couple of so-so starts. It's easy to see the reason - first and foremost, he's been so good for so long that he's going through what all players do, a slump. Nobody wins forever, and nobody's dominant forever. Fact. Second, it's a physical thing - Roth's changeup hasn't been working like it usually has, with not as much sink, and opponents have noticed and are teeing off. USC has managed to avoid a truly disastrous outing so far, and Roth will no doubt work out of it. Everyone's hoping that it will be this weekend.

NO MUSTARD (OR SYRUP): Joey Pankake is doing well in his new role as leadoff hitter, and is miles better at the plate. But after a stretch where his defense improved, it's regressed. He had another two errors this weekend, and a play that could have been ruled an error that wasn't, plus a late double-play relay that allowed a run to score. Pankake has improved at charging a ball, but now the throws are low or wide and even a great defensive first baseman like Christian Walker can't dig them out. Mystifying, because Pankake has a plus arm, but he's not getting his feet set and the ball is sailing on him. Thirteen errors isn't a kind number, especially with 19 regular-season games left.

CERBERUS: The Gamecocks' bullpen seems to be in a trend of running a three-headed dog at opponents - Tyler Webb, Evan Beal and Matt Price. The only problem is, Webb had a bad day for the first time this season (although he recovered to save Sunday's game) and Beal has been inconsistent. What's happened to Joel Seddon? Where are the other options (like Nolan Belcher, who got the job done on Saturday after Webb and Beal had not)? I get that John Taylor is deeply, deeply missed, but there are too many arms in that pen to be facing such a black hole in between the starter and Price.



THE UGLY

UGH!: It's almost painful at times to watch USC run bases. Whether it's running through signs, or not looking for signs, or maybe the signs are coming up late, USC gets picked off with frightening regularity. I get that this isn't a base-stealing program - I've been watching it as long as Tanner has been around, and there has only been one year (1999, with Brian Roberts) that the Gamecocks ever used the stolen base as a staple. But some of this stuff … man, is it mind-boggling to watch some of these same mistakes happen. The latest was on Sunday, when Marzilli singled to get Chase Vergason to third and Pankake to second. Vergason got there and was wisely held up, because the hit had dropped into shallow right, and he got back to the bag. But there was Pankake, halfway between second and third, and he was pickled. Chad Holbrook slammed his helmet to the ground and it was hard to blame him. It keeps happening, with no end in sight.

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