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February 27, 2014

'It's not just another three games'



Chad Holbrook has been an integral part of the South Carolina program since 2009 when he joined the Gamecocks following a long and successful stint as an assistant at North Carolina, his alma mater.

In his 15 years on the UNC staff, Holbrook and the Tar Heels annually faced Clemson. Typically, those games enjoyed a significant role in determining the regular season ACC championship.

So, they were important.

But this important? Not really.

One of the most meaningful and unique sporting weekends on the yearly Palmetto State calendar gets underway Friday (7 p.m., FOX Sports South) when No. 3 USC and bitter rival Clemson clash in the first of three emotionally charged games at Carolina Stadium.

Saturday, the two teams square off at Fluor Field in Greenville (2 p.m., local TV affiliates) before wrapping up the annual Palmetto State Tour, a conspicuous fabric of life here, Sunday afternoon at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

"Growing up in Columbia, I've been around the rivalry for 21 years now," USC catcher Grayson Greiner said Thursday. "Every time I get to strap it up and play against Clemson, it's a little more special for me. I honored to be a part of this rivalry. They have a great team and we have the utmost respect for those guys. We're looking forward to a fun weekend. The series is going to be rocking.'

Greiner, a graduate of Blythewood High School, is one of as many as six Palmetto State natives in USC's probable starting lineup, joining first baseman Kyle Martin (Greenville), third baseman/outfielder Joey Pankake (Easley), centerfielder Tanner English (Murrells Inlet), rightfielder Connor Bright (Mt. Pleasant) and DH Brison Celek (Charleston).

USC (7-0), one of three unbeaten teams remaining in the SEC along with Tennessee and Arkansas, opens conference competition in two weeks when it hosts Ole Miss in a three-game series starting March 14. But Holbrook recognizes that perhaps the three most important games USC is involved in this season unfold over the weekend.

"In many ways, as important as SEC games are, these three games are more important than an SEC game. The competition level will be awfully high," Holbrook said Thursday during his weekly press conference previewing the Clemson matchup. "These are as big of three regular season games as we're going to play. It's very important to our players, coaches, fans and our university.

"It's a great rivalry to be a part of. It's a lot of fun to be involved in it. It's two great baseball programs going at each other and that's what makes it fun for the fans. It's one of the best rivalries in our sport. It's not just another three games."

While No. 11 Clemson still retains a healthy advantage in the all-time series, USC has won 11 of the last 15 and 20 of the last 28 meetings with the Tigers dating back to 2007, including all six NCAA Tournament skirmishes.

Seven of USC's last 11 wins have come by two or fewer runs - six by one run - and Holbrook expects to see the same brand of hard-fought, passionate baseball between the rivals this weekend.

"A lot of those 15 games have been nip-and-tuck and could have gone either way," Holbrook said. "We made a pitch here or a play there to help us win a close game. That's what it comes down too in our sport."

Five consecutive shutouts and 51 straight scoreless innings have propelled USC to the top of the SEC pitching statistics with a team ERA of 0.86 (six runs allowed with in 63.0 innings pitched). The Gamecocks are the only SEC team with a staff ERA less than 1.45.

However, Holbrook realizes sustaining the school-record scoreless streak against a Clemson lineup featuring talented hitters such as Steven Duggar (.333), Garrett Boulware (.375) and Tyler Krieger (.500) will prove challenging.

"We have thrown well, but we're not going to sit here and plan to shut these guys out," Holbrook said. "They're too good for that. They're going to score their share of runs. Asking our pitchers to shut them out is asking too much. We have to a find a way to win some 5-4, 4-3 games. That's how I think they're going to unfold."

Even though USC outscored Clemson, 17-6, in the three games last year, Holbrook views the two rivals as equally talented across the board.

"Neither team is going to out-talent the other," Holbrook said. "It's two evenly matched teams. It will come down to execution. That's the way it should be when Clemson and South Carolina lock horns. Two of the premier college baseball programs in the country just happen to be in the same state, so it creates a unique rivalry.

"With three sold-out stadiums, two really good teams and lots of emotion in both dugouts, it's almost like a football atmosphere at three baseball games."

Friday night starter Jordan Montgomery blanked Clemson over eight innings in the opener of last year's three-game series, but USC's probable starters on Saturday and Sunday, sophomore Jack Wynkoop and freshman Wil Crowe respectively, have yet to face the Tigers in their careers.

Holbrook believes both young pitchers are up to the task in what clearly ranks amongst the most pressure-packed starts of their lives. Crowe has already been honored twice by the SEC office for his pitching exploits on the first two Sundays of the season.

"Wynkoop has thrown in some big games (at LSU, SEC Tournament), so he knows what to expect," Holbrook said. "Jack has a lot of same temperament Jordan has. So, I'm not worried about that. We have to try to make sure we keep Wil's emotions in check because he's a freshman.

"But at the same time we have the utmost confidence that the atmosphere, the game and the rivalry won't be too big for him. He's a competitor and he wants the ball in his hands no matter who we're playing. If our three starters don't do well, it won't be because the stage is too big."

NOTES:

-- Holbrook is concerned about the quick turnaround from Friday night's game in Columbia to Saturday afternoon in Greenville. USC will stay in Columbia overnight and bus to Greenville early Saturday morning.

-- The three-game single weekend format began in 2010. USC is 2-1 against Clemson at Fluor Field.

-- Friday night's game will be televised by FOX Sports South with Andy Demetra and Trey Dyson handling the broadcast. Saturday's game in Greenville will be televised by seven local affiliates around the southeast with WMYA My40 in Greenville serving as the flagship station. Stations in Columbia (WOLO), Charleston (WTAT), Myrtle Beach/Florence (WPDE), Charlotte (WCCB), Augusta (WJBF) and Savannah (WJCL) airing the game to their respective markets.

DM


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