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May 3, 2013

Gamecocks looking to stay patient against Vanderbilt

NO. 2 VANDERBILT (39-6, 19-2 SEC) at NO. 15 SOUTH CAROLINA (33-12, 13-8)
When: 7 p.m. today, noon Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
TV: SportSouth (today, Saturday), CSS (Sunday)
Probable starting pitchers: Vanderbilt - LHP Kevin Ziomek (today, 8-2, 2.12 ERA); RHP Tyler Beede (Saturday, 11-0, 1.63); RHP T.J. Pecoraro (Sunday, 2-1, 3.93). South Carolina -- LHP Nolan Belcher (today, 6-4, 2.03); LHP Jordan Montgomery (Saturday, 3-0, 1.40), LHP Jack Wynkoop (Sunday, 6-2, 2.66)
Notes: South Carolina continued a crucial nine-game SEC stretch with two wins over LSU, and now has to try and win a series against Vanderbilt to keep it going. USC is 5-1 in the first six games of the stretch. … Vanderbilt is one game ahead of the pace that USC's 2000 squad was on when it set the SEC record of 25 conference wins, and has six games against Kentucky and Alabama after this weekend. … The Gamecocks play their second straight team that is ranked No. 2 by Baseball America. Vanderbilt is ranked second in three of the five major polls and first in the other two. … The Gamecocks lead the all-time series 49-23 and haven't lost a regular-season series to Vanderbilt since 2008. … Commodores coach Tim Corbin has been an assistant coach at Wofford and Clemson, and was head coach at Presbyterian from 1988-93, when the program was re-started and then made the jump from NAIA to Division II. … USC first baseman LB Dantzler is on the watch list for the Golden Spikes Award.
Next up: USC hosts Wofford at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

It was the classic glass-half-full, glass-half-empty scenario.

Coach Chad Holbrook and everybody else in his South Carolina dugout was pleased and happy on Thursday, celebrating the end of exams and the newly gained confidence from a great weekend. With no midweek game this week, the No. 15 Gamecocks are still as good as their last game, which was a whitewash of then-No. 2 LSU at its place. Lot of smiles and loose expressions as USC prepared to practice.

But there is that other side.

"We're certainly a lot more confident today than we were getting on the plane, going to Baton Rouge after losing to Gardner-Webb," Holbrook said. "What a difference a week makes, in regards to that."

Confidence is good, but it isn't everything.

"We can be a much more confident team and it could not show up in the won-loss column this weekend," Holbrook continued. "The one thing that scares me to death about this weekend - we can play great, and lose. That's how good Vandy is."

Another second-ranked team is on the slate, and while this series is at home, Vanderbilt (39-6, 19-2 SEC) may be even more formidable than LSU on the road was. The Commodores used the learning experience of a 35-28 "down year" in 2012 to field one of the country's best teams in 2013, and USC is the latest to try and derail Vanderbilt's seemingly Omaha-bound train.

The Commodores have won 16 of their past 17 SEC games. They're hitting better against SEC pitching (.320) than all opponents' pitching (.314). Six starters are hitting at least .311 (with another, Spencer Navin, at .299), with Tony Kemp leading the way at .399. Pitcher Tyler Beede is 11-0 with a 1.63 ERA, and he's the Saturday starter.

The Gamecocks (33-12, 13-8), fighting to maintain their top-four placement in the league, will certainly have their hands full. Three factors help - one, they took two of three from LSU, which was considered another elite team. Two, it's at home.

Three, perhaps they exploit the one tiny dent in Vanderbilt's superiority by doing the same thing they did at LSU.

Hitting against a starting pitching staff that wasn't known for making mistakes, USC shelved some of the aggression at the plate that has been a major part of the last five years. While the theory of most likely seeing a fastball within the first two pitches of every college at-bat still holds for the Gamecocks, they weren't so anxious to swing against the Tigers' pitchers.

USC walked eight times in the final two games of the LSU series (both wins) and mostly stayed patient at the plate for all three games. While some still swung early and often (Connor Bright, Max Schrock and TJ Costen are almost always green-lighting themselves), the Gamecocks worked a lot of two- and three-ball counts.

They didn't do any good against Friday starter Aaron Nola, but against Ryan Eades and Kurt McCune, they did. The Gamecocks scored a crucial ninth-inning run in Game 2 thanks to a 2-1 count on Tanner English and scored two runs in Game 3 when Chase Vergason got ahead in the count during two at-bats.

If they can do that against Vanderbilt, perhaps they can work the same magic. LSU's three starters were 34-to-160 in walks-to-strikeouts before the USC series; Vanderbilt's trio of Kevin Ziomek, Beede and T.J. Pecoraro are 79-to-164.

"I hope we can get some free passes," Holbrook said. "You're going to have to have a great approach against the guys. You're going to have to try to get some runners in scoring position, because you're not going to bang the ball around the park on them, extra base-hit them to death. That's just not the kind of ballclub they are."

USC shed the malaise that had dogged it during the Gardner-Webb game by relishing the atmosphere of Alex Box Stadium and as English said, having more fun. He also stressed the patience at the plate as part of an overall crackdown on the fundamentals.

"We messed a few little things up (against G-W)," English said. "We had to make sure to go back to the basics. Not try to do too much and not put too much pressure on ourselves."

They did, and got two wins. USC is right back where it's used to being, fighting for a national seed for the NCAA tournament and about to take on another highly ranked opponent. Holbrook is hopeful that the mojo of the final two games at LSU carries over.

"We've certainly got our work cut out for us, facing a very, very elite Vanderbilt team," he said. "Luckily we get to play them at home, in front of our fans. Should be a great atmosphere. It's a great challenge, it's also a great opportunity."

NOTES: Platooning catcher Dante Rosenberg is making an advanced recovery from the broken hamate that was feared to have him shelved for the season. He is already out of the cast and was set to try and catch a bullpen session on Thursday. While he won't be cleared for this weekend, the hope is that he could be ready perhaps by the regular season-ending series at Mississippi State, and then the postseason. … Right fielder Bright still has a bit of pain from the strained shoulder he suffered at LSU, but Holbrook said that Bright should be fine to play against Vanderbilt.

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