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April 30, 2012

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Alabama



GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger breaks down the best, worst and plain nastiest moments from No. 7 South Carolina's 3-0 series win over Alabama.

NO. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA 1-12-9, ALABAMA 0-11-1
(USC wins series 3-0)


THE GOOD

BACK ON TOP: USC's 11-game surge in the SEC has put the Gamecocks right back to where they're accustomed to being - in first place. They are tied with Kentucky and LSU with nine games to play, and will definitely be keeping an eye on the Kentucky-Florida and LSU-Ole Miss series while playing their three games at Arkansas this weekend. USC doesn't have to come out ahead of the Wildcats or Tigers to win the regular-season title; it only has to tie, since tiebreakers are only used for tournament seeding. They're not thinking about that, though -- all they want to do is keep doing what they've been doing. The chance to hang another banner and earn another ring is there, and from an overall standpoint, the more games that USC wins, the better its chances are of earning a top-eight national seed and staying home for the NCAA Regionals (and Super Regionals, if it advances). Whatever happens, USC has made the memory of a 1-5 start become just a blip on the radar screen. The more games that end on the left side of the ledger from here on makes that start just another piece of USC lore.

FINDING A WAY: As really illustrated against Alabama, USC is back to finding ways to win. The confidence is beginning to re-settle, with the uncertainty of the early season vanishing in a whiff off a bat. In the Friday doubleheader, the Gamecocks were getting no-hit before Adam Matthews wiped out the no-no, the shutout and the potential loss with his first swing of the day. USC won with one hit. Then the Gamecocks strung together three consecutive one-out hits in the ninth inning of Game 2 to put themselves one run from tying the game. Sean Sullivan hits a bloop single that "I couldn't have thrown it in there any better than that," it falls between three fielders and is kicked around in the outfield, allowing the tying and winning runs to score. That's the confidence borne of winning and doing it so many times - even the freshmen are channeling the mindset that the upperclassmen have used so well over the past two seasons.

RAPS: USC is still only hitting .275 as a team, but it's beginning to string the hits together and has had some big games swinging the bat lately. The first game against Alabama was obviously not an example - Spencer Turnbull had his fastball darting all over the zone and the Gamecocks couldn't hit anything square. But the other two games featured 22 USC hits. They're beginning to fall all around the yard and USC has become especially adept at spraying hits for extra bases, led by the suddenly discovered power stroke of LB Dantzler. He's only at .255 for the season but has tied Christian Walker for the team lead in home runs (eight) and has 37 RBIs. There's something to this whole Reptar deal …

A-BOMB: Matthews finally broke out of his slump by hammering the first pitch he saw on Friday out of Carolina Stadium, then he belted another homer in the second game before taking a seat for Game 3 (his fielding in Game 2 probably played a part in that). He's still only hitting .207, but at least the hope is around that his long hitting slump is over. Before his first homer against Alabama, Matthews was 0-for-19. He'll keep playing, because there's really no other definite option to take his place. TJ Costen isn't that experienced in the field and hasn't had enough at-bats to be considered an everyday starter. Plus, Matthews is a senior, and a captain, and Ray Tanner will always stick with his older guys. If the rest of the bats continue to stay heated (poor choice of words?), no reason why Matthews can't be in there.



THE BAD

CAUGHT UP: It took a while, but the injury bug found its way back to Columbia. USC saw two contributors have to take a seat. Colby Holmes was nixed before the series after he strained his arm while stretching during practice. Tanner has called it some kind of "burst vessel" in Holmes' shoulder and says it doesn't appear to be serious, but Holmes was wearing a sling on Friday (it was gone on Saturday). With Jordan Montgomery getting roughed up for the first time this season and Patrick Sullivan getting knocked around on Saturday, it's a bad time to have a go-to starter ailing. Then Walker had to leave Saturday's game after straining his hamstring while reaching for a throw. He was walking normally after the game and said he felt fine, but hamstrings are always tricky. Obviously, going into any game without Walker is not a good sign, but there has been no declaration of his status for Wednesday's game hosting Davidson or this weekend's series at Arkansas. If USC has to play without Walker, at least it has a ready-made slugging first baseman available in freshman Kyle Martin (.340, one homer, seven RBIs). With the pitching, I would think that Nolan Belcher has done enough to get back on the hill. Sullivan battled through some rough innings, but he also walked four and struck out none in four innings.

MARZ: The elevation of Joey Pankake to leadoff hitter has been good for the overall lineup, but bad for Evan Marzilli. The Gamecocks' former leadoff man, Marzilli has slipped since the switch occurred 10 games ago. He hasn't gotten a hit in his last five games and has fallen to .279 for the season. Marzilli is a key asset to the team for his play in center field, and put together a 31-game streak of reaching base earlier this year, but is going through a slump at the moment. Sometimes he has to give himself up to get Pankake over a base, but most of the time, Marzilli just isn't hitting the ball or taking enough pitches to walk. It's only five games, but USC surely doesn't need a dead spot in the two-hole. If three-hole hitter Walker has to miss a game or two, that position becomes extremely important.



THE UGLY

JOE-E: Pankake has settled down a lot after a rash of errors in his first 20 games at shortstop, but he's also starting to see an increase of the yips. Pankake booted three balls in one game against Alabama, two where he dropped the balls after gloving them and one on a wild throw. His season total is 16 errors in 41 games (.903) and it's becoming a case of everyone taking a deep breath when a ball is hit to him. Of course he'll keep playing because nobody's perfect, and he has gotten much, much better at turning the double play. "I'm very happy with what he's been able to do at short," Tanner said, also pointing out that it would be tough for anybody to come in and be what the Gamecocks had the past two years (Bobby Haney and Peter Mooney). "He's much better now than what he's been in the fall and the preseason. He's been pretty good." He has been, and it's an error-prone position, but a regression back to a stone glove and hard-throwing but misdirected arm is not what USC wants to see going into the postseason.

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