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February 19, 2013

First weekend a learning experience



"I'm off and I'm runnin' just as far as I can go."
------------------------------------------ LESLEY GORE

Three games in the books. Some good, some bad. But a series win, and no drop in the polls. Things could be much worse.

WHAT WORKED

The starting pitching was divine. Jordan Montgomery displayed the "good-half" Montgomery of last year, striking out five, walking two and scattering five hits in six innings without a run. He probably would have lasted another inning or two, and would have had one less walk, had his defense not coughed up three errors behind him and extended innings. Colby Holmes looked solid, although a wild pitch and two walks left him on the hook for a loss until South Carolina pulled off a stunning comeback. Nolan Belcher looked fantastic, striking out nine and walking one, but got zero offensive help and did give up some solid hits.

That's a solid three-man rotation to build around, and lets the Gamecocks know that they can always be in games from the start. They just need their offense to come around and equal what those guys are doing.

USC also responded to some tense moments. There was the hoopla of Ray Tanner's tribute before the first game, a game the Gamecocks really wanted and needed to win. Thought to be an easy one, USC nearly frittered away a 4-0 lead before responding. Then in Game 1 on Sunday, the Gamecocks pulled one out of the hat better than Harry Houdini on his best day. Yes, Liberty heavily played into that - I lost count of how many free passes the Flames' pitching staff issued, as they were being given away like most folks eat popcorn - but USC still realized that the game was there for the taking, and stayed patient at the plate. That paid off as Kyle Martin waited for his pitch, stayed low and drilled the seams off it to win the game.

WHAT DIDN'T WORK

Starting pitching was fine, closing pitching was fine. In between - yeesh. Patrick Sullivan and Forrest Koumas combined for four walks, three hits and three runs in 1 1-3 innings of Friday's game. Jack Wynkoop and Joel Seddon gave up three runs and two walks in 1-3 of an inning. Evan Beal had three hits in an inning, although none crossed the plate. Adam Westmoreland deserves a break, because he should have been out of an inning cleanly. His defense let him down.

The Gamecocks have plenty of arms, and eventually want to return Tyler Webb to that middle relief role, be it long-man or setup. But they can't do that until another closer emerges - Koumas and Beal were thought to be the primary candidates, but they didn't show that on the first weekend. Koumas is still getting back to form, but Beal has just had a bad preseason. Mystifying to see, considering his talent.

The defense was pretty rotten as well. The Gamecocks had five errors in the first two games before playing without an E in Game 3. Joey Pankake and Chase Vergason each had two errors in their first two games. Everyone's hoping that's just a first-weekend glitch - the Gamecocks will not be successful without a sturdy shortstop, and after training Vergason since the fall to be at third instead of second, his 2012 position, it wasn't pleasant to see.

USC also picked up a couple of injuries. Tanner English broke his nose but will play through it. It shouldn't affect him as long as he doesn't re-aggravate it. But Ahmad Christian has a stress fracture in his back that Chad Holbrook said could keep him out for a month. While Christian is a backup, his athleticism and talent were such that Holbrook knew from the first day of fall practice that he would make the team. That's a big loss to a team that was counting on him for production this year.

OVERALL

First, the hitting. Some might have walked out of Carolina Stadium thinking the Gamecocks have their same old problem - they can't hit. The weather has something to do with it - as it warms up, the balls will carry a bit more. In Game 1 on Sunday, USC was hitting the ball but right at people. That will change. Plus, there are a lot of new faces in the lineup, particularly at the top. They'll come around.

USC got to show off a lot of its new faces. Graham Saiko, Max Schrock, Shon Carson, Curt Britt, TJ Costen, Wynkoop, Seddon, Christian and Connor Bright were all guys who are either newcomers or didn't play a lot of innings last year.

The switch-hitting move with English worked well, and should only get better. The speed game, built around English, Saiko and Costen, didn't do so well, as English got thrown out twice. That should also improve as the moves weren't straight steals but botched hit-and-runs, and English did get one stolen base.

Also, Liberty is not only a good, but a great, team. The Flames would be consistent NCAA tournament performers if it weren't for their status in the Big South Conference. Having covered that league for two years, a team really has to do something extraordinary to get an at-large bid to the tournament, like winning 48 of 56 games or something else incredible. Liberty, like every other team in the BSC, has to find a way to get past Coastal Carolina in the BSC tournament. Once it does, it will be that team that everyone knows it can be.



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