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April 20, 2012

USC tries to extend mastery of Auburn



NO. 9 SOUTH CAROLINA (27-11, 8-7 SEC) at AUBURN (21-16, 7-8)
When: 7 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Samford Stadium-Hitchcock Field at Plainsman Park, Auburn, Ala.
Tickets: Available at the box office
TV: SportSouth (Saturday)
Probable starting pitchers: South Carolina -- LHP Michael Roth (today, 3-0, 2.55 ERA), LHP Jordan Montgomery (Saturday, 3-0, 2.48); RHP Colby Holmes (Sunday, 5-0, 2.87). Auburn - RHP Derek Varnadore (today, 1-5, 5.20); RHP Jon Luke Jacobs (Saturday, 5-0, 2.37); LHP Daniel Koger (Sunday, 2-3, 2.66).
Notes: South Carolina leads the series 38-19, its second-biggest margin of series victory over any SEC opponent (47-21 over Vanderbilt). … The Gamecocks are hitting .276 to Auburn's .309. … The Tigers have nearly 40 more stolen bases than USC has attempts (72 to 33). … Auburn lost starter Will Kendall, who was 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA, to a season-ending arm injury. … Auburn coach John Pawlowski is a Clemson graduate who served as a Clemson assistant coach from 1994-98. Following a year as an assistant at Arizona State, Pawlowski coached College of Charleston from 2000-08 before taking over at Auburn. … The Gamecocks have won five straight SEC games.
Next up: USC hosts Alabama in the first of a three-game series at 7:30 p.m. on April 26.

Ray Tanner jokingly knocked on his head before he answered.

"I don't think you can really explain it," South Carolina's 16th-year coach said on Thursday. "Sometimes your team plays better against an opponent than others."

No one could put a finger on it, because there isn't a definite answer. One would figure that, especially in the ultra-competitive SEC, one team would never historically dominate another. Baseball is a sport where the most talented team doesn't necessarily win every night, and it's tough to stretch winning streaks against opponents.

But since Tanner arrived at USC, there have been certainties. His teams will play hard. His teams will pitch well.

And his teams beat Auburn.

As the No. 9 Gamecocks (27-11, 8-7 SEC) head back on the road, they're wanting to keep their small hot streak going. USC has successfully yanked its feet (talons?) from the fire after a 1-5 conference start to go 7-2 with three straight series wins, once again solidifying its berth for the SEC tournament and its chance to host an NCAA Regional.

It's a good opponent to play in order to strengthen that chance, at least historically speaking. Tanner lost a 2-1 series the first time he played Auburn, and hasn't lost since.

In 12 series since 1998 (the two teams did not play a regular-season series in 2002 or 2003), USC has beaten the Tigers every time. In years of hitting and non-hitting, years of being a top contender for the SEC crown and years of just hoping to get to the conference tournament, the Gamecocks have sent Auburn packing.

Tanner lost his first series to the Tigers, then won the next 12 games against Auburn. USC has currently won the past four, the past seven of nine and the past 13 of 16. The Tigers are on their third coach since Hal Baird won that last series over USC.

Two of the Gamecocks' four-year players, right fielder Adam Matthews and closer Matt Price, were also mystified at how USC always seems to top the Tigers.

"I can't explain it," said Price, who will visit Plainsman Park for the second time. "Sometimes you just have a team's number."

Price recalled his days pitching for Sumter's American Legion team, when it seemed he always had to face the Legion squad from neighboring Florence. While Price said it was sometimes a split, he also said that Florence usually got the edge on Sumter.

Matthews was the same. He said that during his time at White Knoll High School, he always remembered the teams from North Augusta and Lexington as the "ones that were gunning for us."

"It was similar to the SEC," Matthews said. "They beat us a few times, but especially my junior and senior year, we beat the both of them a number of times."

Tanner's first game against Auburn was formidable. Facing the Tigers early in the year, the first-year skipper saw Tim Hudson toe the rubber at Sarge Frye Field. Hudson would win the Golden Spikes Award that season, but on that day, the Gamecocks pounded him. It was the only time Hudson got hit that hard all year.

"We won that game handily," Tanner said (final score, 17-3). "I'm thinking, 'Wow, I don't know if I understand this league really well enough.'"

The next two days brought him back to Earth. The Tigers blasted USC 10-6 and 21-6 to take the series. "The next two games, we got it kind of handed to us," Tanner said, channeling Captain Obvious.

But since then, it's been nothing but wins. While Auburn may have taken a game or two in the SEC tournament and evened an overall yearly series, it's been all USC in every regular-season three-game set.

For a team that's seeking to keep a good roll going, it's music to the ears. The Tigers (21-16, 7-8) are in good shape for an SEC tournament berth, but they have to win quite a few games to get to the NCAA Regionals. While USC hasn't been a superior team in 2012, perhaps the old mojo will kick in one more time and give it a boost. Lucky number 13.

"Certainly right now, we need to continue that trend," Tanner said. "We must continue to do that, with these 18 games that are left. We got to have a pretty good record going down the stretch here, and hopefully these guys will be able to do that."

Koumas out: Sophomore Forrest Koumas remains injured with soreness in his pitching elbow and will not make the trip to Auburn. Koumas threw a bullpen session on Wednesday and said that he felt "pretty good," according to Tanner, but the medical staff wasn't going to take a chance on him just yet. Koumas will throw "an aggressive bullpen" early next week and if he's still feeling fine or better after that, there is a chance that he could be activated for next week's Alabama series.

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