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May 1, 2012

USC soars through crucial four series

Hard to argue with that.

After winning its first SEC series over Vanderbilt on April 1, South Carolina was 3-6 in the SEC and about to embark on what looked like a favorable four-series stretch. Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama, while not guarantees, offered a chance to get better before the brutal final three series of the season.

The Volunteers beat USC 5-4 on April 6, dropping the Gamecocks to 3-7 in the SEC.

They haven't lost a conference game since.

USC has swept three straight conference series, a stunning streak in the parity-rich world of today's college baseball, and gotten itself right back in position. The Gamecocks are tied for first place in the SEC and looking at its chances for a back-to-back SEC regular-season championship, which are getting better with every win. Plus, a finish over Kentucky in the standings would give USC a first-round bye in the SEC tournament, perhaps something that could improve its sagging fortunes in the annual event (USC has not won it since 2004 and has only won two games in Hoover in one tournament since then).

To be fair, USC has hardly had to win in Hoover to cement its place in the NCAA regionals, which could be the case again this year. The Gamecocks are beginning to eke back onto the short list for a top-eight national seed and are probable to at least host an NCAA regional no matter what happens at the SEC tournament.

But the SEC tournament is three weeks away, the regionals four. The Gamecocks are at No. 18 Arkansas this weekend with one goal - keep doing what they're doing.

That's not necessarily winning, but playing winning baseball. The streak will end sometime - maybe - but as long as USC feels good about what it took to get there, it can live with it.

"When you're winning, people are happy, and when you're losing, people aren't happy," left-hander Nolan Belcher said. "Early on, we had a bunch of young guys and they were trying to find themselves, but like coach has said before, they're not really young guys anymore. I think they're kind of coming into their own."

They are, and the team has gelled. USC has a pretty stable lineup, at least among the first four batters, and has pulled out of its seemingly season-long hitting slump. The Gamecocks have also seemed to re-harness the confidence that comes from players and teams that have never done anything but win games, using every last out to pull out the victory.

The four series were so integral to that mentality. With three at home and the only road series at Auburn - a team that USC has historically dominated - the Gamecocks might have known that it was their best chance to snap out of the funk. It was put up or shut up.

They put up. That improved the record, and the confidence. The latter will be heavily needed as USC travels to Arkansas, a place where it historically has been lousy, but a place where it pulled off a three-game sweep the last time it visited (2010).

After that comes a trip to Georgia and the final regular-season series at home against LSU. The Gamecocks have lifted their feet from the fire and are playing on fire - how much gas is left in the line?

No telling.

"We're playing well. We feel good," first baseman Christian Walker said. "We're playing loose, we're having fun. We've been playing this game our whole lives. There's no point in playing stressed-out or uptight. It's a good feeling."

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