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April 14, 2014

Look back, look ahead: Backs to the wall



Numbers can be twisted in an infinite number of ways to fit whatever narrative you want to tell.

The bad news from South Carolina's series loss to Florida this past weekend is the Gamecocks left 28 runners stranded on base in the final two games, 16 in Saturday's 4-3 loss in 13 innings.

Sunday, USC batted .083 (1-for-12) with runners in scoring position and .111 (2-for-18) with runners on base. When the final out of Sunday's frustrating 6-5 loss had been recorded, the Gamecocks' lack of clutch hitting had proven costly along with the failure to again protect a late game lead.

The good news, though, is USC was managing to get runners on base. Even though it only gathered seven hits, the Gamecocks drew five walks and reached on five Florida errors.

Still, it wasn't enough.

"We're getting on base. Somebody has to split an alley or somebody has to get a big hit," USC head coach Chad Holbrook said Sunday. "(Grayson) Greiner has gotten some big hits for us this year and some other guys have too."

The second inning of Sunday's illustrates USC's batting woes with runners on base. Joey Pankake, regarded by Holbrook's best hitter, came to the plate with the bases full and one out. But he fanned swinging. Kyle Martin then flew to right to end the inning as Florida kept the deficit at one run.

"We had them right where wanted them today," Holbrook said. "We're up 1-0, we had some momentum, the bases were loaded and our best hitter at the plate. We have to get a run there. Left-handed pitcher, right-handed hitter, we have to get a run. We had our opportunities, but we didn't cash in."

Coming on the heels of a disappointing series setback to Arkansas, dropping the final two games by one-run margins to the Gators marked the first time in more than two years the Gamecocks had dropped consecutive SEC series.

USC's offense has fallen off dramatically in the past two series with the Gamecocks collecting more than seven hits just once in their last six games facing SEC pitching.

Together, USC's combined batting average against Arkansas (16-of-95) and Florida (28-of-117) was a lowly .208 (44-of-212). Jordan Gore's solo shot into the USC bullpen in the eighth innings of Sunday's 6-5 rubber game loss represented USC's second homer in the last nine games.

Clearly, USC has struggled manufacturing runs against quality conference pitching.

"We're one game off the pace, but I don't think we've swung the bats well or played in the league the way we're capable of playing," Holbrook said. "And we're one game off the pace. We have to dust ourselves off and get back to work and see if we can play better. We scored five runs today, but in the last five games we haven't scored many (runs). We have to get some hits and be more offensive. It's very frustrating to me that our starting pitching pitched their rear ends off in the last two games and we don't have a win to show for it."

One obstacle to playing better - starters Pankake, Max Schrock and Connor Bright are hobbled by injuries. Holbrook hinted Schrock and Pankake, who exited Sunday's loss to Florida with a strained hamstring, could each miss several games.

Junior Patrick Harrington made his first start of the season in left field on Sunday, and walked twice and drove in a run. Harrington had seven career at-bats when the game started.

"We have to make plans to play without Max and Joey," Holbrook said. "We have to play the healthy guys. I'm proud of Jordan stepping up in Joey's spot and hitting one out of the park. Maybe I haven't played that kid enough or Patrick Harrington enough. I have to make some better decisions, apparently.

"Maybe some of those guys that hadn't been regulars deserve to be regulars. I'll reevaluate that. We have some guys chomping at the bit over there (on the bench) who maybe deserve to play. Maybe I need to give them more opportunities."

The last time USC lost back-to-to-back series was March 2012 when Kentucky swept USC in Lexington and Florida won two of three in Columbia.

Now USC, trailing Florida by one game in the SEC Eastern Division standings, must play two of its next three SEC series on the road. In fact, USC will play three of its final five conference series in opposing ballparks.

In other words, if USC wants to stay competitive in the SEC East title race and receive serious consideration for a coveted top eight national seed, they're obligated to win multiple road series to keep those dreams alive.

"We're halfway through the SEC season. Our backs are against the wall a little bit because we have nine (SEC) road games and only six home games," Holbrook said. "We'll find out how tough a team we are. I consider our team fortunate that we're just one game off the pace."

USC carries an overall .287 team batting average into Tuesday night's home game against Charleston Southern. After a trip to Charleston on Wednesday for a makeup game at The Citadel, the Gamecocks head to the Plains for a must-win series against Auburn.

"This program prides itself on playing with toughness and playing with emotion," Holbrook said. "When the chips are down, we can circle the wagons with the best of them. That's what I expect to see (this week). There is something special about wearing this uniform.

"We all know what this program is about and how our guys respond to adversity. When our backs are to the wall, we tend to play our best. That's what I hope to see and that's what I think I will see."

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Jordan Montgomery
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 2-2
OVERALL RECORD: 28-7 (8-7 SEC)
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 11 in Baseball America, No. 15 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 9 in Perfect Game USA.

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS:
April 8 at Furman (Fluor Field), W 9-2
April 11 vs. Florida, W 4-1
April 12 vs. Florida, L 4-3
April 13 vs. Florida, L 6-5

THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE:
April 15 vs. Charleston Southern, 7 p.m.
April 16 at The Citadel, 7 p.m.
April 18 at Auburn, 7 p.m.
April 19 at Auburn, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
April 20 at Auburn, 2 p.m. (CSS)
(All Times Eastern)

NOTES:

-- Martin has supplanted Bright as USC's leading hitter after a productive week at the plate. Martin tops the team with a .338 average (46-for-136) with 26 runs scored and 20 RBI. Martin is hitting .317 (20-for-63) in SEC contests and leads the Gamecocks with 15 multi-hit games.

-- Even though Cody Mincey had thrown only 25 pitches in the first two games, Holbrook elected not to use him on Sunday. "He was fine and ready to go, but his confidence was a little bit shaken there with what happened on Friday (two walks) and Saturday (two hits, one run in 0.1 IP), so we went to (Taylor) Widener first," Holbrook said. "We would have probably gone to him in the ninth."

-- Closer Joel Seddon allowed his first two runs all season on Saturday during a season-long five-inning stint. Seddon is 1-1 on the year with a 0.38 ERA in 24.0 innings pitched with 32 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .104 against him.

-- Crowe worked 7.1 innings in Sunday's 6-5 loss, allowing five runs (two earned) on 10 hits with four strikeouts. Crowe is 6-2 with a 2.13 ERA in a team-high 55.0 innings pitched.

-- Before Sunday, USC had been 24-3 when scoring three or more runs in a game this season. In addition, USC had been 21-2 when it scored first.

-- In addition, before Saturday, USC had been 22-0 when leading after seven innings. Now they are 22-2 in that category after failing to protect late leads on Saturday and Sunday.

-- Junior LHP Vince Fiori is the lone USC pitcher remaining with a 0.00 ERA. He pitched 1.2 scoreless innings on Sunday, yielding one hit with one strikeout. Fiori has a 0.00 ERA in 16.0 innings pitched with 15 strikeouts and five walks.

-- USC is 13-0 on the year when scoring six runs or more and 26-3 when allowing five runs or less. In addition, the Gamecocks are 25-3 when outhitting the opponent and 21-3 when scoring first.

HITTING LEADERS:
Batting Average: Kyle Martin (.338)
At-bats: Kyle Martin (136)
Runs: Joey Pankake (35)
Hits: Connor Bright (46)
Doubles: Connor Bright (10)
Triples: Marcus Mooney and Tanner English (1)
Home Runs: Max Schrock (5)
RBI: Grayson Greiner (33)
Total Bases: Kyle Martin (64)
Slugging Pct: Grayson Greiner (.478)
Walks: Grayson Greiner (17)
On-Base Pct: Joey Pankake (.409)
Stolen Bases: Tanner English (6).

SEC EAST STANDINGS: Florida 9-6, USC 8-7, Georgia 7-7-1, Kentucky 7-8, Vanderbilt 7-8, Tennessee 6-9, Missouri 6-9.



DM


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