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March 31, 2014

Look back, look ahead: Breathtaking flair

South Carolina's flair for the dramatic seemingly has no expiration date.

The scene has played out countless times over the past five seasons. When the Gamecocks need a clutch hit or a big out or face an outwardly impossible situation, somebody makes a play.

Label it luck, magic, the refusal to quit regardless of the circumstances or simply the aptitude to perform under pressure with their backs to the wall - you pick the adjective - adverse circumstances don't deter USC in achieving the ultimate goal - victory.

Just a few weeks after stunning Clemson and Ole Miss with remarkable last-gasp comeback wins, USC pulled more Houdini-like tricks out of the bag this past weekend by smacking a pair of walk-off homers against Tennessee in the first two games of a three-game sweep over the Vols highlighting the third weekend of SEC play.

For USC coach Chad Holbrook, the wild weekend represented three more fierce hand-to-hand combats in the SEC.

"It was a great weekend for us, obviously," Holbrook said Sunday. "I told our guys that in this league there is very little separation amongst the teams. We could easily be sitting up here having lost two out of three. A pitch here, a pitch there, a play here or there and we lose two out of three. We consider ourselves very fortunate. There is not much separation between ourselves and Tennessee.

"You're never comfortable in the SEC. (Sunday), it was 7-0 and I'm going to (Cody) Mincey. The games are too important and they can change on a dime just like it did (Saturday) night. You never think the game is over. But I could tell our guys were ready to play when they came to the stadium in BP. They had a little bounce in their step today."

Owning all the momentum after Saturday's theatrics, USC then rode the powerful right arm of freshman starter Wil Crowe, who remained unbeaten at 6-0 by tossing 7.1 scoreless innings in Sunday's convincing 8-0 shutout, the 11th whitewashing of the season in 27 games by Gamecock hurlers, three shy of the school record of 14 shutouts in 1974.

Remember, we haven't yet reached the halfway point of the regular season.

The sweep catapulted USC to No. 1 in one major Top 25 poll (Collegiate Baseball) and kept the Gamecocks at No. 2 in the Baseball America ranking. USC leapfrogged Louisiana-Lafayette in Collegiate Baseball.

Grayson Greiner enjoyed perhaps one of the best weekends at the plate in his three-year career, collecting seven hits and seven RBI in 16 at-bats (.438), including the gripping game-winning, walk-off grand slam homer ending Game 2's memorable 9-6 victory.

"If Grayson Greiner is not one of the best two or three or four players in the country, I don't know who is," Holbrook said. "The performance he put on this weekend was incredible."

Greiner added two hits and two RBI - including his fifth double of the season - in Sunday's rout. USC scored twice in the first inning, once in the third and four more in the fifth to cruise to the win.

The Blythewood native was showered with a standing ovation when he came to the plate for the first time in Sunday's contest.

"We finally won a normal game without having to come back in the ninth inning," Greiner said after hitting his second grand slam and fourth homer of the season. "I thought we played a pretty complete game. The pitchers threw well, the hitters hit well and the defense played well.

"I had never gotten a standing ovation before, so that was pretty cool."

Greiner was honored as SEC Player of the Week on Monday.

Greiner's no-doubt-about-it blast far over the left field wall lifted the Gamecocks to their third victory this season when they have been down to their final out and the chances of victory appeared slim.

In addition to extending USC's winning streak over Tennessee to eight games dating back to the 2012 season, the sweep of the Vols catapulted the Gamecocks into a first-place tie with Florida atop the SEC East standings with identical 6-3 conference marks, one game ahead of Vanderbilt (5-4).

Florida, which swept LSU in Gainesville this past weekend, visits Carolina Stadium for a pivotal three-game series against the Gamecocks starting April 11.

Both teams hit the road this weekend with USC traveling to Baum Stadium in Fayetteville for a Thursday-Saturday series at Arkansas (17-10 overall, 4-5 in SEC), while the Gators sojourn to Lexington for a matchup with Kentucky (Key question: How many Kentucky fans will actually attend the games at Cliff Hagan Stadium since the Wildcats are simultaneously hooping it up in the Final Four at Jerry's World in Dallas?)

However, before flying to the Ozarks, the Gamecocks square off with Appalachian State Tuesday night in Columbia.

"We have a quick turnaround this week with the Tuesday game against Appalachian State and we travel Wednesday (to Fayetteville)," Holbrook said. "So, it's not going to get any easier."

Arkansas is tied with Ole Miss and Texas A&M for fourth place in the SEC West with a 4-5 league mark. The Razorbacks possess the lowest team batting average in the SEC (.259), but they only trail USC and Vanderbilt in team ERA (2.22), so three close, hard-fought games at Baum Stadium are likely looming.

"We're going to play a great Arkansas team with a phenomenal pitching staff," Holbrook said. "It's going to be hard to score on them. It's hard to play there. When you get a sweep in front of a hard trip like that, it takes the pressure off. You take a deep breath and say, 'Let's go play.' We're in a good spot."

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Grayson Greiner
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 2 in Baseball America, No. 1 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 3 in Perfect Game USA.

March 25 vs. College of Charleston, W 4-2
March 26 vs. Coastal Carolina, W 4-0
March 28 vs. Tennessee, W 3-2 (14 Inn.)
March 29 vs. Tennessee, W 9-6
March 30 vs. Tennessee, W 8-0

April 1 vs. Appalachian State, 7 p.m.
April 3 at Arkansas, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)
April 4 at Arkansas, 7:35 p.m.
April 5 at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
(All Times Eastern)


-- USC possesses the lowest team ERA in the SEC at 1.75 and is one of two conference teams with a staff ERA below 2.00. Vanderbilt (1.98) is the other. The Gamecocks also have yielded the fewest total runs (59) and earned runs (48). Opponents are batting .207 against USC hurlers, third best in the SEC.

-- Crowe is tied with Vanderbilt's Jared Miller for most wins by a SEC pitcher (6). "He can go to any pitch in any count, which is very rare for a freshman to do," Holbrook said. "His strikeouts will go up and his stuff is only going to get better as he continues to grow and mature and get stronger. He is learning how to pitch right now and that bodes well for his future."

-- Emerging as USC's best middle reliever, freshman Reed Scott earned his first career win in a Gamecock uniform this past weekend by pitching six scoreless innings of relief in Saturday's dramatic 9-6 walk-off victory. Scott has yet to give up a run in 16.1 IP with just seven hits and three walks allowed while striking out 14. Opponents are batting only .132 against him.

-- Junior 3B Joey Pankake extended his hitting streak to 15 games by hitting safely in all five contests last week. Pankake hit .462 (6-for-13) in the Tennessee series with five runs scored and three RBI. He is hitting a team-best .432 (16-for-37) in SEC contests with nine RBI, two homers and 11 runs scored.

-- Kyle Martin has reached base in 15 straight games. He kept the strike alive in Sunday's win over Tennessee by walking once in five plate appearances. He is currently batting .340 (35-for-103), fourth highest among the regulars.

-- Cody Mincey leads USC pitchers with 15 appearances and recorded his first career save in last week's 4-2 victory over College of Charleston. Mincey has allowed just nine hits and one run in 20.1 IP with 29 strikeouts and eight walks.

-- DC Arendas raised his average 13 points to .256 (20-for-78) by going 2-for-4 in Sunday's 8-0 blanking of the Vols. "He works extremely hard with Coach (Brian) Buscher," Holbrook said. "He is as tireless a worker as we have on the team. He is working every day. Sometimes he works so hard that he thinks a little bit too much in the batter's box and fights himself. His mind is his worst enemy. You have to be on automatic pilot to be a good offensive player. He swung the bat very well (Sunday) and that was encouraging. Even his out to centerfield was hit on the nose."

-- Although Tanner English's blazing speed and bunting ability makes him a perfect leadoff candidate, he hits much better in the No. 9 spot, so Holbrook plans to keep him there. "Tanner is comfortable down in that nine hole," Holbrook said. "I keep trying to convince myself to put him in the leadoff spot, but when I put him in that No. 9 hole, he gets hits."

-- USC is 21-1 at home this season with the lone loss coming to Ole Miss on March 14 in the first game of a three-game series.

-- USC is 11-2 in games decided by three runs or less and 19-1 when they score first.

-- Current SEC Eastern Division standings: USC 6-3, Florida 6-3, Vanderbilt 5-4, Kentucky 4-5, Georgia 3-5-1, Tennessee 3-6, Missouri 3-6. The divisional champion is guaranteed an opening round bye in the 2014 SEC Baseball Tournament. "At the end of the day, there are going to be a lot of people bundled up in the East," Holbrook said. "I don't think there is going to be a huge amount of separation between three or four teams. The league is too close and evenly matched."

Batting Average: Connor Bright and Grayson Greiner (.356)
At-bats: Connor Bright (104)
Runs: Joey Pankake (30)
Hits: Connor Bright (37)
Doubles: Connor Bright (10)
Triples: Marcus Mooney and Tanner English (1)
Home Runs: Max Schrock (5)
RBI: Grayson Greiner (29)
Total Bases: Grayson Greiner and Kyle Martin (49)
Slugging Pct: Grayson Greiner (.544)
Walks: Kyle Martin and Marcus Mooney (13)
On-Base Pct: Grayson Greiner (.429)
Stolen Bases: Connor Bright (4).


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