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May 7, 2012

Look Back, Look Ahead: Defense sparkles



The irony of one of the wildest games involving South Carolina (36-12 overall, 16-8 in SEC) in recent memory is sensational defense played an integral role in the Gamecocks' stirring win.

Frankly, when a contest goes from a scoreless tie to a 10-7 final score in a span of three innings, the last thing you think about is defense.

But not this game.

USC right-fielder Adam Matthews threw out two runners at the plate, catcher Grayson Greiner gunned down two would-be Arkansas base stealers and centerfielder Evan Marzilli made multiple, run-saving diving catches in center to complement several outstanding defensive plays by the infield.

The bottom-line result of the glorious glovework was arguably one of the most important regular season wins in Ray Tanner's 16-year tenure as head coach.

USC rose one spot to No. 4 in the Baseball America poll and remained well positioned to claim one of the top eight national seeds, which will be announced three weeks from today along with the entire 64-team tournament field.

The series-clinching win on Sunday gave USC 13 victories in its last 14 SEC games (6 straight series wins), a stretch that has catapulted the Gamecocks to the top of the SEC standings along with LSU (16-8 in SEC).

The tie between USC and LSU might not be broken until May 17-19 when the two powerhouse programs meet in a potentially winner-take-all, season-ending series in Columbia. High drama? Possibly.

Overall, USC committed just two errors on the weekend (zero in Sunday's game) compared to five for Arkansas. Sunday, Matthews threw out a runner attempting to score on a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning and threw out a runner trying to score off a base hit from second base in the seventh inning.

Marzilli showed again this weekend that he is one of the top defensive centerfielders in the country. He also has four assists on the season.

Sunday's victory was also unusual for the fact all 10 runs were driven in by the bottom five hitters in the order. The No. 8 and 9 hitters (Chase Vergason and Tanner English) combined to go 5-for-7 with five RBI and two runs scored.

Greiner caught all 28 innings in the weekend series at Arkansas and threw out five Razorback runners over the course of the weekend trying to steal. At the plate, his two-run homer on Friday night was the first long ball allowed all season by Arkansas starter Ryne Stanek, a key two-run blast that helped the Gamecocks rally from six runs down to defeat the Razorbacks. He also had a key RBI single in the 10th inning of the 8-6 victory.

In Sunday's exciting win, Greiner drove in two runs with a single during a six-run eighth inning against Arkansas closer Barrett Astin.

In 24 SEC games, Greiner is hitting .301 (22-for-73) three homers, 18 RBI, eight doubles and 14 runs scored as well as a .418 on-base percentage. Overall, Greiner raised his season average to .261 (36-for-168) with six homers and 31 RBI.

Christian Walker remained hot at the plate by reaching base nine times in the Arkansas series. He went 5-for-12 (.417) with a homer, two RBI, four walks and four runs scored. His on-base percentage for the weekend was a sizzling .563.

For the season, Walker leads the Gamecocks with a .347 average (59-for-170), nine homers and 45 RBI. Walker currently ranks second in the SEC in on-base percentage (.477), second in walks (36), third in runs batted in (45), sixth in slugging percentage (.571), sixth in homers (9), eighth in runs scored (39), ninth in batting average (.347) and ninth in total bases (97).

The biggest surprise offensive for USC was Vergason, who walloped his first homer as a Gamecock on Saturday. The JUCO transfer hit .500 (5-for-10) for the weekend with a .545 on-base percentage and 1.000 slugging percentage. Besides the homer, Vergason added two doubles, three runs scored and three RBI.

Sunday, Vergason was 3-for-4 at the plate with two runs scored and two RBI. The three hits and two RBI were both season highs for Vergason. He is now hitting .293 in SEC games (12-for-41), third-best average on the team with a .444 on-base percentage.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Grayson Greiner
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 3-1
OVERALL RECORD: 36-12 (16-8 SEC)

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS:
May 2 vs. Davidson, W 2-1
May 4 at Arkansas, W 8-6
May 5 at Arkansas, L 7-6
May 6 at Arkansas, W 10-7.

ROAD WARRIORS, PART II: After a non-conference home contest against Furman (22-25 overall, 9-15 in Southern Conference) Wednesday night at Carolina Stadium, the Gamecocks hit the road again for a three-game set at improving Georgia (28-20 overall, 12-12 in SEC). USC has struggled at Foley Field over the past several years and each game there seems to be a life-or-death struggle.

Considering USC is trying to earn a top eight national seed and the Bulldogs are seeking another trip to the NCAA Tournament, the stakes will be high this weekend in the Peach State. Georgia swept Auburn in Athens this past weekend, outscoring the rival Tigers, 20-10, over the three games. Saturday, the Bulldogs pulled out a 6-5 thriller over Auburn in 11 innings.

Sunday, Georgia scored five runs in the first two innings and cruised to a 9-3 victory over the Tigers, securing its first sweep over an SEC opponent since last season when the Bulldogs won three games against Mississippi State.

Freshman RHP Luke Crumley (2-2) picked up the win Sunday with a career-high five innings and four strikeouts. He gave up one run on six hits. Two more freshmen (Jay Swinford, Peter Nagel) closed out the game.

THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE
May 9 vs. Furman, 7 p.m.
May 11 at Georgia, 7 p.m.
May 12 at Georgia, 1 p.m. (CSS)
May 13 at Georgia, 2 p.m.

NOTES

* After 48 games, the Gamecocks have a team batting average of .276 (442 hits; 9.2 per game) with a .367 on-base percentage and .409 slugging percentage. Defensively, they've compiled a .978 fielding percentage with 39 errors in 48 games, less than one per contest. The pitching staff has a staff ERA of 3.25 in 434.2 innings with 396 strikeouts (8.3 per game) and 144 walks (3.0 per game). Opponents are batting just .222 against USC.

* The Gamecocks lead the SEC in walks (205) and are third-best in home runs (36). Their .978 fielding percentage is second-best in the SEC.

* The 7-6 loss on Saturday dropped USC to 11-9 this season in one-run games. But Friday's 8-6 win improved the Gamecocks to 7-0 in two-run games, making them 18-9 in close games in 2012.

* USC is 23-1 this season when it scores six or more runs this season. The lone setback? Saturday's 7-6 loss in Fayetteville.

* USC is 15-0 in 2012 when it scores in the first inning and 26-4 when it scores first, 10-8 when the opponent scores first.

* USC has won five of the last six games against Arkansas in Fayetteville. The Gamecocks swept the Razorbacks at Baum Stadium in 2010 en route to the first national title.

* Matt Price had two saves and one victory this past week. He worked 1.1 scoreless innings of relief with two strikeouts in the 2-1 win over Davidson for a save. He followed up with a perfect 10th inning in the 8-6 win over Arkansas on Friday night. Price pitched the final 3.2 innings in Sunday's 10-7 victory as well to earn his fourth win of the season. Price is 4-3 on the year with a 3.72 ERA and seven saves.

* Freshman OF Tanner English was 2-for-3 with a career-high three RBI in Sunday's 10-7 win on Sunday. English is hitting .306 (53-for-173) for the season with 34 runs scored, 16 RBI and eight stolen bases. English's average is second on the team only to Walker. English leads the Gamecocks with 18 multi-hit games.

* Marzilli is tied for the SEC lead with seven sacrifice flies, including an SF in the 2-1 win over Davidson. Marzilli is one short of the school's single-season record of eight sacrifice flies held by Jim Curl (1981) and Jim Pankovits (1974).

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D. McCallum


South Carolina NEWS

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