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April 26, 2014

Diamond extra: The bigger picture

Saturday's 2-1 loss to Alabama, together with Florida's 5-0 blanking of Missouri in Gainesville, dropped South Carolina (33-11 overall, 11-9 SEC) three games behind the Gators in the SEC East race.

Worse, since Florida (29-15 overall, 14-6 SEC) owns the tie-breaker over the Gamecocks by virtue of their series win in Columbia two weekends ago, the Gators actually own a four-game lead over USC in the divisional standings.

With just 10 conference games remaining for both teams, have USC's hopes for earning one of the top two seeds in the upcoming SEC Tournament (May 20-25 in Hoover, Ala.) evaporated?

USC coach Chad Holbrook stressed his team would continue following the proverbial 'one game at a time mentality, 'and that the Gamecocks have greater objectives than simply the SEC East crown.

"We do the one game at a time deal," Holbrook said Saturday. "We don't get caught up in that. We want to play well in the next game. You can be the third seed in this league and be a national seed. Yeah, I'd absolutely like to win the SEC regular season championship and that's one of our goals, but if we don't that's not the end of our season. That's not the ultimate goal.

"If I had to choose between playing in the College World Series or winning the SEC championship, I'd take the College World Series 10 times out of 10 and twice on Sunday. That's what we're trying to get to. Right now, we're just trying to manage things from an adversity and health stand point and keep ourselves in some conversations for post-season play.""

Holbrook, though, doesn't minimize the importance of Sunday's 1 p.m. rubber game with the Crimson Tide. Dropping series at home is potentially devastating in the SEC because success on the road is extremely difficult, especially in the wake of the setback to the Gators two weekends ago that gave Florida a leg up in the division.

"Like I've been saying since the season started, there is no separation from a talent standpoint," Holbrook said. "We're not going to walk out and out-talent Alabama. It becomes execution, a pitch here or a play there. We're playing at home. We should play with a sense of urgency and with our hair on fire (Sunday).

"As I told the guys after the game, we're going to treat this like a Super Regional do-or-die winner-go-home game. I told them that if that makes them tight and they feel pressure, they came to the wrong baseball program to play ball. It's an important game tomorrow. I expect my team to give an incredible amount of effort in the third game."

USC: at Georgia (May 2-4), vs. Missouri (May 9-11), at Vanderbilt (May 15-17).

FLORIDA: at Alabama (May 2-4), vs. Vanderbilt (May 9-11), at Tennessee (May 15-17).

BRIGHT SIDELINED, CALDWELL FIGHTS ON: Connor Bright exited Friday night's game when he got "very sick". Saturday, he was seen in the USC dugout wearing street clothes with his arm protected by a sling. USC's second leading hitter (.336) was replaced by freshman Gene Cone in right field.

"I don't know how long he is going to be out," Holbrook said. "Connor had a reaction to something last night. We don't really know. He was shook up. He was in the hospital emergency room until about 1 or 2 a.m. He left the game very sick last night. It wasn't his elbow, per se, that caused him to come out of the game last night. Today, we had him in a sling so he won't move (the arm) as a precaution. We wanted to keep it still and let the thing heal.

"Hopefully, we can get him back. I hope he knocks on the door and begs me to put him in tomorrow. If not, we have a week (without nonconference games) ahead of us. We have a chance to be a great team if we get our guys (Bright, Schrock) back. Then we become a little more offensive and we're tough to handle."

Holbrook said Bright "turned the corner from the sickness standpoint" and "looked better" on Saturday than Friday night. Nonetheless, he was not ready to play on Saturday.

Holbrook also revealed left fielder Elliott Caldwell has continued playing even with a stress fracture in his lower back.

"If Connor is healthy today, Elliott doesn't play because of his back," Holbrook said. "The kids are giving me all they can give me. He has a stress fracture in his back, so it's not just a tight muscle. We have some kids putting their heart and soul into it for the team."

WIDENER FLOURISHES: Two weeks ago, Holbrook brought in freshman Taylor Widener to face Florida in a bases-loaded situation. Saturday, Widener replaced USC starter Jack Wynkoop on the mound with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the seventh. Widener managed to keep the deficit at one run by getting the next two Alabama hitters in the inning to foul out to first and ground out to third.

Widener, a graduate of South Aiken High School, has been lights out on the mound for most of the season, allowing only 15 hits and four runs in 28.2 innings pitched. He has fanned 25 and walked nine, including one Tide hitter on Saturday. In addition to holding Alabama hitless for 2.2 IP, Widener collected two of USC's five hits, further establishing himself as a legitimate two-way player at the SEC level.

"I was expecting him to be equally good as a hitter offensively as he was a pitcher," Holbrook said. "He is gifted with a great arm. He will only get better on the mound. The more opportunities I give him offensively, I think he'll produce for us. He stayed in there and battled his tail off against left-handed pitchers. It was impressive."

Holbrook's faith in Widener as a college hitter hasn't been shaken in spite of his .209 batting average (7-for-34) after 43 games because he's been given limited opportunities thus far. Saturday marked his eighth start of the season as designated hitter.

"When we recruited him, we thought we were recruiting a gifted hitter. I haven't deviated from that," Holbrook said. "He got off to a slow start, but now he's finding his way and he's confident now. He's feeling good. He will get a lot more opportunities as we go forward."


-- Four of USC's five hits on Saturday came with two outs. USC got the leadoff batter on base just twice in nine innings on Saturday - double by Arendas in the bottom of the third and a walk issued to Greiner in the seventh. Arendas scored USC's lone run on a sacrifice fly, while Greiner was thrown out at the plate trying to score the tying run on a single by Tanner English.

-- USC freshman Wil Crowe (6-2, 2.37 ERA in 60.2 IP) will make his 11th start of the season in Sunday's rubber game, while Alabama will counter with 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior RHP Tucker Hawley (3-1, 0.68 ERA in 26.2 IP, 13 hits and four runs allowed). Hawley, a graduate of South Aiken High School, replaces junior LHP Jon Keller, who has been the Crimson Tide's Sunday starter throughout the SEC season. Keller was suspended earlier this week by Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard for a violation of team rules. Keller (5-1, 1.94 ERA in 60.1 IP) has logged at least 5.1 IP in all of his SEC starts this season.

-- Saturday's loss snapped USC's six-game winning streak over Alabama. The last victory by the Tide over the Gamecocks was May 19, 2011. Ironically, the score of that contest was also 2-1.

-- Jack Wynkoop improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio to an impressive 49-8 on Saturday when he struck out four Alabama hitters in 6.1 IP without walking a single batter. The four pitchers utilized by both teams combined for three walks, a key reason the contest took 2 hours and 26 minutes to play on a sun-splashed afternoon at Carolina Stadium.

SEC SCORES (Sat., April 26):
Alabama 2, USC 1 (Series tied 1-1)
Ole Miss 18, Kentucky 5 (Rebels lead 2-0)
Florida 5, Missouri 0 (Gators lead 2-0)
Vanderbilt 12, Georgia 9 (Completion of Game 1)
Vanderbilt 11, Georgia 0 (Commodores lead 2-0)
Texas A&M 6, Miss. State 4 (A&M leads 2-0)
Arkansas 4, Auburn 3 (10 Inn.)(Series tied 1-1)
Auburn 7, Arkansas 2 (Game 3)(Tigers win 2-1)
Tennessee 6, LSU 3 (Series tied 1-1)

SEC EAST STANDINGS: Florida 14-6, USC 11-9, Vanderbilt 10-10, Kentucky 9-11, Tennessee 8-12, Georgia 7-12-1, Missouri 6-14.

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