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February 25, 2014

Analysis: USC and shutout history

While researching USC's now school-record five consecutive shutouts and 51 scoreless innings, I came across some interesting tidbits about South Carolina's long history both with and without them that I found fascinating.

The four-game streak in 1972 came on four consecutive days in back-to-back two-game series with Appalachian State and Georgia State from April 17-20. The streak was broken on April 21 in a 2-5 loss to Clemson. What's more impressive out that stretch of games is that not only did the team throw four consecutive shutouts, they threw shutouts in six of eight games during that stretch. For the year, the 1972 Gamecocks threw what was then a school-record 10 shutouts in 41 games.

That staff was led by Larry Erbaugh, who went 6-5 with a 1.46 ERA in 92 innings and in 10 starts threw nine complete games, which has to be some kind of record for percentage of complete-games thrown per start for a season. Also on that staff was Earl Bass, who went 5-1 with a 1.50 ERA and who thre five complete games in nine starts. Alan Hilliard contributed a 1.59 ERA in seven starts (two complete games, 2-3 record), while Melvin "Bo" Robinson actually led the team in ERA with a 1.35 in nine mostly relief appearances.

Earl Bass, of course, went on to set the school record for shutouts, with 10 for his career and is fifth in school history in wins (34) and second in strikeouts (392).

That record of 10 shutouts in a season lasted only one year, as in 1974, playing an expanded schedule that included a trip to the Starkville, Miss., NCAA District III Tournament, the Gamecocks threw a still-school record 14 shutouts behind Bass, who that year was 12-1 with a 1.10 ERA, Ray Lavigne (5-0, 1.15 ERA) and Greg Ward (10-4, 1.30 ERA). Both Bass and Ward started 15 games and both threw eight complete games on a staff with four regular pitchers sporting a sub-2.00 ERA (reliever Allen Johnson was 5-0 with a 1.35 ERA and eight saves).

That 1974 team, which fell to Miami in the Starkville Regional, finished the year 48-8 and blanked such teams as West Virginia, Virginia, Clemson and N.C. State along the way while recording back-to-back shutouts just once (versus mighty Frostburg State, of all people). Probably along with the 2000 team, it makes a strong case to top the list of best Gamecocks teams never to make it to Omaha, though the following year's team did and made the school's first national championship game appearance, falling to Texas 5-1.

Overall, that four-year stretch from 1972-1975 featured 45 shutouts, a school record for a four-year span and for average per year (11.25), was highlighted by 14 in 1974 and 13 in 1975.

The following two years, Bobby Richardson's last in 1976 (38-14) and June Raines' first in 1977 (43-12, Omaha runners-up) teams both threw nine shutouts, a number the program would reach just once in the next 22 years (in 1982) until Ray Tanner's 2001 team threw 10. His 2000 team that set a school (and then-SEC) record for wins threw just five, and the back-to-back national championship teams threw eight and four, respectively, and four again in 2011 when they lost to Arizona in the championship series. Tanner's three Omaha teams from 2002-2004 weren't shutout kings, either, throwing four, four and nine, respectively.

So far, Holbrook's teams have thrown 13 in a year and seven games, a number it too Tanner five years to get to. Holbrook's 2013 team also did something Tanner's couldn't - record a no-hitter, which it did against Albany, snapping a 38-year drought. The previous shutout streak lasted 42 years.

Much of the history has to do with eras - the adoption of aluminum bats in 1974, the ensuing gorilla ball era, the new BBCOR bats now. Since the new bats were introduced in 2011, the Gamecocks have thrown four, then back-to-back eight-shutout seasons, including last year. With five already through seven games, the team is certainly on a pace to break the school record of 14, though that's a record few care much about, which may be why it's nowhere to be found in the USC Media Guide; I had to go back through every season individually since 1892 to get it.

Still, it's an interesting category because it reflects not just one or two pitchers' greatness but the skill of an entire staff, which may be why this run of five straight is so impressive because it's included 10 different USC pitchers - Jordan Montgomery, Jack Wynkoop, Wil Crowe, Hunter Privette, Reed Scott, Curt Britt, Josh Reagan, Cody Mincey, Vince Fiori and Joel Seddon. Eleven pitchers (including Trey McNickle and Taylor Widener and excluding Wynkoop) haven't allowed a run this season.

When it comes to Omaha, shutouts seem to help. USC's 11 teams to make it averaged 7.2 per season. Only the 2011, 2002, 2003 and 1985 teams had five or less. The rest had seven or more. As has been pointed out, the team to break the 1972 shutout streak - Clemson - is the team's next opponent. Will history repeat itself? Probably, if for no other reason than the level of competition is significantly better. But whatever the case, the record is impressive and a big reason South Carolina is undefeated right now at 7-0.

And in case that got you wondering, the record for consecutive wins to begin a season is 22, set by the 2000 team. Twenty-two also is the number of consecutive NCAA postseason wins, set from June 22, 2010, to June 16, 2012, which stands as the most-impressive record held by South Carolina as a school in any sport and arguably one of the top two or three most-impressive records in all of NCAA sports history.

USC shutouts by Year, from 1970:
1970 - 2
1971 - 3
1972 - 10
1973 - 9
1974 - 14
1975 - 13 (Omaha, national runners-up)
1976 - 9
1977 - 9 (Omaha, national runners-up)
1978 - 4
1979 - 2
1980 - 7
1981 - 7 (Omaha)
1982 - 9 (Omaha)
1983 - 3
1984 - 1
1985 - 5 (Omaha)
1986 - 4
1987 - 3
1988 - 3
1989 - 4
1990 - 4
1991 - 5
1992 - 2
1993 - 5
1994 - 5
1995 - 4
1996 - 1
1997 - 2
1998 - 3
1999 - 2
2000 - 5
2001 - 10
2002 - 4 (Omaha, national runners-up)
2003 - 4 (Omaha)
2004 - 9 (Omaha)
2005 - 5
2006 - 4
2007 - 6
2008 - 1
2009 - 6
2010 - 8 (Omaha, national champions)
2011 - 4 (Omaha, national champions)
2012 - 8 (Omaha, national runners-up)
2013 - 8
2014 - 5 (and counting)

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