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April 20, 2012

Gamecocks rip Auburn

VIDEO: Ray Tanner

AUBURN, Ala. - Ray Tanner thought that the final 18 games of the regular season would perhaps put some life in his team's slumbering bats.

He's right so far.

Ninth-ranked South Carolina pounded Auburn 12-5 on Friday, finally scoring more than the dogged four-run total that has seemed to define the year. The Gamecocks (28-11, 9-7 SEC) ripped Derek Varnadore (1-6) for four first-inning runs to help pace their sixth straight SEC win, and moved one step closer toward their fourth straight SEC series win, and an unheard-of 13th straight series victory over the Tigers.

USC hits like it did on Friday, all those prizes that were taken for granted in recent years (host sites, high seeds, conference titles) all come back into heavy play. Tanner knew he couldn't guarantee that that would happen, but he sure liked how his team started the journey, if that's indeed what will happen.

"Twelve runs … we don't get that too often," Tanner said. "We needed all those runs."

Varnadore toted a hefty 5.20 ERA into the game, and showed why in the first inning. Every pitch sailed in belt-high and the Gamecocks, seeking an answer for a 38-game issue, didn't need to be told twice - they swung away.

Evan Marzilli walked to begin a stretch of three straight singles, the last from Grayson Greiner which hit off Varnadore's glove and scored Marzilli. Adam Matthews plated another run with a ground-out, before freshman Connor Bright belted a two-out single off the wall in left field to make it 4-0.

With a four-run lead before he ever toed the rubber, Michael Roth (4-0) didn't have to be sharp. The senior, battling through the only slump of his career, wiggled out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam when Joey Pankake turned an unassisted double play, and as he went in for a rest, he saw that maybe he wouldn't have to be as lights-out as usual.

"I was kind of fighting all night," Roth said. "It was nice to have a little run support."

The Gamecocks kept hitting, although Varnadore stuck it to them in the second and third frames. USC bided its time until the fourth, when Bright again singled and Varnadore loaded the bases on a hit batter and a walk.

Pankake started his at-bat 0-2 but fought off a few pitches until he got what he wanted. The freshman mashed Varnadore's next offering high and deep to left-center, watching it finally hit off the "Green Monster" replica and bounce back onto the field.

By that time, Bright and Tanner English were already across the plate. Pankake was held to a single on Chase Vergason's base-running snafu, but Varnadore's brief shell of protection was shattered.

"Seemed like it hung up there forever," said Pankake, who hit leadoff for the fifth straight game. "We got a couple of runs out of it."

USC added another run in the frame and four in the fifth, with one tacked on for good measure in the eighth. Freshmen Pankake, English, Bright and Greiner combined for eight hits and eight RBIs.

Roth lost the shutout in the fifth and gave up a two-out home run to Garrett Cooper in the seventh. He had convinced coach Jerry Meyers to leave him in the game before the homer but left after it.

"I told him I wanted one more hitter," said Roth, who struck out eight around eight hits and two walks but threw 137 pitches. "I never pay attention to my pitch count."

Bright, in a rare start at designated hitter, got his first hit since March 9 but drove in three runs on three hits. He put himself in position for another start on Saturday, when USC tries to win the series at 4 p.m.

"I'm trying to take it at-bat by at-bat," the soft-spoken freshman said. "Stay ahead in the count and get some hits."

Box score

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