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May 25, 2012

USC makes another quick Hoover exit



HOOVER, Ala. - The SEC recently agreed to keep the SEC tournament in Hoover through 2016.

Perhaps by then, South Carolina will have figured out how to play at Regions Park.

The Gamecocks' Hoover swoon reached eight years on Friday, No. 3 Florida savagely eliminating No. 7 USC with a 7-2 drubbing. Starter Colby Holmes, thought to be rejuvenated after an outstanding start last week, was hammered for four runs in the first three innings and the Gamecocks didn't get their second hit until the sixth inning.

USC has won more than one game at the SEC tournament only once (2007) in the past eight years, a malaise that started the year after the first and only SEC tournament championship (2004) in school history. In some years, it didn't matter due to the Gamecocks' postseason fate already being settled.

In other years, including this one, there was something on the line. The Gamecocks' chances of landing a top-eight national seed and thus ensuring home-field advantage in the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals took a serious hit, although nothing will be decided until Monday, when the 64-team postseason field is announced.

But even if USC (40-17) does land a top-eight seed, it has to win its NCAA Regional to take advantage of it. While past years have proven that a lousy performance in Hoover doesn't affect the Gamecocks in the postseason (1-4 in Hoover during the 2010 and 2011 national championship seasons), it would at least ease Ray Tanner's mind to be playing crisply and with a veteran's poise before the start of the most important series of the year.

"That's an understatement," the coach said. "We have played well after this, and we're hoping that will continue."

Holmes, "with an extra bounce in his step" on Thursday as Tanner said, was rocked early and often, his fastball missing a few miles per hour and his breaking balls not breaking enough. Nolan Fontana knocked a leadoff double in the first inning and it was on from there, although USC's defense wasn't sharp, either.

Trailing 1-0, LB Dantzler passed up a potential double play at second base to get Vickash Ramjit at first, letting Casey Turgeon take second. Josh Tobias ripped an RBI single to left to score the run, and Florida was just getting warmed up.

Holmes allowed the third leadoff man in three innings to reach in the third, and Mike Zunino crushed a two-run home run to left to make it 4-0 and chase Holmes.

"I couldn't get ahead," Holmes said. "No first strikes. That's what happens when you leave pitches up."

But USC wasn't quite done digging its hole just yet.

Brian Johnson didn't allow a baserunner until ninth hitter Chase Vergason singled with two outs in the third. The Gamecocks were hitting the ball hard but right at fielders, and the tweeners were finding their ways into Florida gloves as well. By the time Tanner English beat out an infield single in the sixth, the Gators (42-17) were up 7-0, helped by a bases-loaded walk from Evan Beal.

Even when USC broke the shutout, it managed to do it in a bad way. Joey Pankake stood at the plate with runners at the corners and nobody out, and managed to get a run home. The problem was that he hit into a double play to do it, and the "rally" ended on a shallow fly ball one batter later.

Johnson wound up going past seven innings for the first time in his career, scattering five hits in an 89-pitch complete game. Johnson struck out five and walked none in a dominating performance.

"He was throwing well, down in the zone," Christian Walker said.

And then the evening quickly turned worse. Reliever Forrest Koumas, in just to get some work in preparation for the NCAA Regionals, re-aggravated a previous injury and had to leave the game (Click).

The Gamecocks meekly folded their tents in the final innings and once again boarded the bus for the ride home. They'll be awarded with a regional host site on Sunday, and wait for their top-eight and/or otherwise placement on Monday.

Until then, it stands to be the same approach. Tanner didn't say that he would hold vengeful two-a-day practices like he did after an 0-2 Hoover showing in 2010, but he did say that there would be no days off.

"We can get some extra practices in," Tanner said. "This isn't a holiday weekend."

"We'll remember how this feels, and learn from it," Walker said. "It's never a good feeling getting knocked out of something like this."

Box score

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