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May 12, 2014

Look back, look ahead: Showdown series



All we know for sure about South Carolina's upcoming series at Vanderbilt beginning Thursday night in Nashville is the winner of the series is guaranteed of finishing no worse than second place in the highly competitive SEC Eastern Division.

After that, a bunch of unknowns.

Will the series winner earn a coveted national seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament? Perhaps.

Will the series winner earn one of the top four seeds in the SEC Tournament, which gets under May 20 in Hoover, Ala.? Perhaps.

Vanderbilt could even snatch the division title if it sweeps USC and division leader Florida drops all three games at Tennessee. Unlikely, but as we've seen over and over again throughout the years, nothing is impossible in this conference.

With identical 16-11 conference marks, USC and Vanderbilt are tied for second in the SEC East and third overall in the SEC standings along with Mississippi State. Because there are no SEC teams with 15 conference wins, the winner of the USC-Vanderbilt series is virtually assured of gaining a top four seed (and a first-round bye) into the SEC Tournament, which could prove to be a rough-and-tumble affair this year with a significant number of teams bunched up in the standings and the official NCAA RPI.

Indeed, high stakes in Music City, USA.

Chad Holbrook, though, doesn't want the Gamecock players viewing the showdown series with the surging Commodores as a do-or-die situation because even a hard-fought series loss in Nashville followed by a deep run through the SEC Tournament bracket could still earn the Gamecocks one of the eight national seeds.

Instead, Holbrook prefers his players focus on Tuesday's home game versus The Citadel since USC is seeking its 40th win of the season.

"The Citadel has beaten us already and if we can win on Tuesday night, that's our 40th win," Holbrook said after Sunday's thrilling 2-1 walk-off victory over Missouri. "If you find a way to get to 40 before your regular season is over, you've had a great regular season. That will be the goal and the focus for the next two days."

After starting slowly in conference play, Vanderbilt is currently one of the hottest teams in the country. Few teams have invaded McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., and emerged unscathed, but the Commodores won two of three games against Florida to keep their faint division title hopes alive.

Vanderbilt, saddled with an 8-10 league record in mid-April, has won eight of its last nine SEC games to jump back into the conference title and national seed picture.

"Obviously, (the series at Vanderbilt) has big implications," Holbrook said. "But the season doesn't end, no matter what happens if we play well or they play well. The season doesn't end Saturday in Nashville. What if the team that loses the series goes on and wins the SEC Tournament? There is a lot of baseball to be played.

"It's three games against a really good team. The media folks are going to put out there that this is what you're playing for, but no one really knows until the last game is played and the last pitch is thrown in regular season and conference tournament play."

Entering the season, Vanderbilt was voted by the league's coaches as one of the favorites along with USC to win the regular season championship. Five of the 14 SEC coaches picked the Commodores to win the division.

Going into the final weekend of conference action, USC (2.03) and Vanderbilt (2.48) are first and third in the SEC in team ERA, respectively, so runs might be hard to come by during the three showdown games in Nashville. The Commodores possess more power arms on their pitching staff than any team in the country, Holbrook said.

"They're playing as well as anybody," Holbrook said. "Probably the most talented team in the country. They have more 95 mile per hour arms than any big league team has. That's not a stretch. What they have on the pitching side, I don't know if I've seen that in my time in college baseball. We'll have our hands full, obviously.

"But first things first. We have a big game against The Citadel. They played very well against us the last time (Bulldogs won 10-8 in Charleston on April 16). It's big game because we're trying to win No. 40."

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Patrick Harrington
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 4-0
OVERALL RECORD: 39-13 (16-11 SEC)
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 17 in Baseball America, No. 17 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 15 in Perfect Game USA.

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS:
May 7 vs. Wofford, W 15-1
May 9 vs. Missouri, W 8-2
May 10 vs. Missouri, W 3-1
May 11 vs. Missouri, W 2-1

THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE:
May 13 v. The Citadel, 7 p.m.
May 15 at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.
May 16 at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.
May 17 at Vanderbilt, 3 p.m.
(All Times Eastern)

NOTES:

-- Perhaps the biggest news from last week was the return of sophomore infielder Max Schrock to the lineup in Wednesday's lopsided win over Wofford. Schrock was 2-for-5 with two RBI vs. Wofford before adding three hits and RBI in Friday's 8-2 win over Missouri. Sunday, he led off the bottom of the ninth with a triple to right-center and soon scored the winning run on a RBI single by Joey Pankake against a drawn-in Mizzou infield.

-- Joey Pankake (6-for-12) and DC Arendas (5-for-10) both hit .500 in the Missouri series. Arendas matched his season-high with three hits in Saturday's 3-1 victory. Pankake had two hits in Sunday's 2-1 win, including the GWRBI single in the bottom of the ninth. Pankake is now batting .306 (56-for-183) for the year.

-- Jack Wynkoop is now 7-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 79.0 innings. He has 54 strikeouts to 10 walks. His ERA ranks 10th in the SEC.

-- Grayson Greiner is closing in on the team triple crown. He leads USC in batting average (.347), home runs (8) and RBI (48). He also has a team-high 11 doubles, .417 on-base percentage and .545 slugging mark.

-- Joel Seddon leads the SEC with 14 saves (in 15 opportunities) with nine of the 14 saves coming against SEC opponents. He is 2-1 with a 0.54 ERA on the season.

-- Patrick Harrington enjoyed a great week as he continued to fill in after injuries to Connor Bright and Elliott Caldwell decimated the outfield. Harrington has a hit in five of the last six games. He tallied a RBI single in the 2-1 win over Missouri on Sunday and went 2-for-3 with a run scored in Saturday's 3-1 win. Harrington set a career-high with three RBI in the 15-1 win vs. Wofford.

-- Freshman RHP Taylor Widener struck out two batters in 0.2 innings of relief Saturday. He is 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA in 18 appearances with 31 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched. Opponents are batting .150 against him.

-- USC's bullpen is 18-1 with a 1.03 ERA in 193.0 innings pitched this year. The bullpen has 199 strikeouts to 62 walks, and opponents are batting .183 against the relievers. The relief staff has limited opponents to 27 runs (22 earned) on 124 hits.

USC OFFENSIVE STATISTICAL LEADERS:
Batting Average: Grayson Greiner (.347)
At-bats: Kyle Martin (202)
Runs: Joey Pankake (45)
Hits: Kyle Martin (64)
Doubles: Grayson Greiner (11)
Triples: Three with 1
Home Runs: Grayson Greiner (8)
RBI: Grayson Greiner (48)
Total Bases: Grayson Greiner (96)
Slugging Pct: Grayson Greiner (.545)
Walks: Grayson Greiner (24)
On-Base Pct: Grayson Greiner (.417)
Stolen Bases: Tanner English (15).

SEC EAST STANDINGS: Florida 19-8, Vanderbilt 16-11, USC 16-11, Kentucky 12-15, Tennessee 11-16, Georgia 10-16-1, Missouri 6-21.

OVERALL SEC STANDINGS:
1. Florida 19-8
2. Ole Miss 17-10
3. USC 16-11, Vanderbilt 16-11, Mississippi State 16-11
6. LSU 14-11-1
7. Alabama 14-12
8. Arkansas 13-14 (Arky won series vs. Texas A&M)
9. Texas A&M 13-14
10. Kentucky 12-15
11. Tennessee 11-16
12. Georgia 10-16-1
***************************************
13. Auburn 10-17
14. Missouri 6-21*

* Eliminated from SEC Tournament consideration.

Note: 12 teams qualify for SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., from May 20-25. Top four teams earn first-round byes



DM


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