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April 29, 2012

Diamond Extra: Gamecocks back in position for title run



There were a lot of uptight expressions and "What's going on here?" thoughts when No. 7 South Carolina returned from an 0-3 trip to Kentucky, and then dropped two of three home games to Florida. It wasn't a great time to be around the baseball offices, as everybody, from coaches to players, seemed to be wondering what was wrong and what the Gamecocks were going to do in order to fix it.

Thirteen wins, and only two losses later, and the relaxed expressions and banter are starting to re-appear.

Following their 11th straight SEC win on Saturday - a 9-1 win over Alabama swept the Crimson Tide out of town and extended the second-longest SEC winning streak in USC history - the Gamecocks were feeling comfortable. Not to the point of being cocky (coach Ray Tanner will never be accused of that), but comfortable.

The feet are out of the fire, and USC (33-11, 14-7 SEC) is right back in the thick of the SEC pennant race, and also pushing into the bubble for one of the precious top-eight national seeds in the postseason. While not many wanted to talk about the winning streak, some could talk about the difference in approach.

"Playing that role as an older guy, I've got to keep everybody loose," first baseman Christian Walker said after Saturday's series-sweeping win over Alabama. "Make sure that they know that everything's not on their shoulders.

"We're not really worried about it right now. We're just playing, having fun."

Walker said that he'd definitely be doing some scoreboard-watching on Sunday, because he slightly pulled a hamstring and was going to take it easy, but the rest of the team probably would as well. Because USC started the Alabama series on Thursday, Sunday is an off day - but the rest of the league is playing.

Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Florida lost to Arkansas. LSU beat Georgia.

Suddenly, the USC that started 1-5 in the SEC is standing at 14-7, a half-game behind 14-6 Kentucky, a half-game behind LSU and 1 1-2 games above Florida with nine to play. The trophy case isn't that big where it couldn't squeeze one more SEC East or SEC regular-season championship (or both) into it.

"We started out, as we all know, in a tough situation," Tanner said. "We just battled our way back, and you're going to take some punches. Got to give some. Good things have happened for us."

The Gamecocks aren't talking too much about it, preferring to stick to the "one game at a time" line, but they're fully back in the race. It's like Tanner has said - baseball is a crazy, beautiful game. A team is never out until the season is over.

"We might have been at a place early offensively where it was a struggle to get four or five runs," Tanner said. "You have to be grateful for where you are today, and try to move on."

SMOKIN': USC's 11th straight SEC win extended the second-longest SEC winning streak in school history. The only one longer than that (previous longest was nine straight) was in 2000, when USC went 25-5 to set an SEC record for the best win total within the 30-game regular season, which was set in 1992.

In that season, USC won a school-record 17 straight SEC games. The Gamecocks set a conference record that may never be broken - of the 25 SEC wins, they actually lost two series. They swept seven series.

OPTION?: Nolan Belcher picked up his second win in less than 24 hours when he threw 3 1-3 innings of shutout ball against Alabama on Saturday. With Colby Holmes out (muscle strain) and Forrest Koumas recovering (he was activated for the Alabama series but did not play), he could be bidding for some more time in the future.

"Got really lucky with that win yesterday," Belcher said on Friday. "Didn't really earn that, by the way."

USC will pitch Joel Seddon against Davidson on Wednesday, with Adam Westmoreland ready to go in relief. Belcher may be playing himself into a Game 3 role, perhaps as soon as the coming series at Arkansas, if Holmes isn't cleared.

"(Tanner) hasn't said anything specifically to me," Belcher said on Saturday. "The whole staff, he just tells us to be ready. Sometimes got to go in and spot-start, sometimes got to go in and get one batter."

PULLED: Walker removed himself from Saturday's game after stretching to grab a low throw from Joey Pankake at short, doing a split in the process and then rolling over after making the play. Walker initially stayed in, but then took himself out for Kyle Martin after running to first in the fourth inning.

Walker returned to the dugout and wore a restrictive "sock" brace on his left leg later. He was walking with no apparent difficult after the game, but Tanner couldn't offer an update.

"It was on the stretch on that double play," Walker said. "Felt like I strained it a little bit. Don't really know too much more than that. It feels better now than it did at the time."

SEC STANDINGS
Team SEC Overall
SEC East
Kentucky 14-6 36-8
South Carolina 14-7 33-11
Florida 12-8 32-11
Georgia 8-12 24-20
Vanderbilt 8-12 19-23
Tennessee 7-13 22-21
SEC West
LSU 14-6 34-9
Arkansas 10-10 29-13
Ole Miss 10-10 28-15
Auburn 9-11 24-19
Mississippi State 9-11 26-17
Alabama 6-15 17-28
Saturday's games
South Carolina 9, Alabama 1
Arkansas 5, Florida 1
Auburn 12, Tennessee 3
LSU 8, Georgia 4
Vanderbilt 4, Kentucky 3
Ole Miss 6, Mississippi State 2
Sunday's games
Arkansas at Florida
Tennessee at Auburn
Georgia at LSU
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Ole Miss at Mississippi State

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