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May 14, 2014

Diamond Extra: It all comes down to this


Game story: USC gets 40th win

Photo gallery: Gamecocks get revenge, 10-1

Tuesday night's rout over The Citadel was the designated opening act for South Carolina's most important regular season series of the 2014 season.

USC's long 56-game schedule has essentially boiled down to three vitally important games against SEC East rival Vanderbilt in Nashville. The winner is guaranteed of earning a top four seed and first-round bye in next week's SEC Tournament, while the loser must hold its breath and, should it prevail in one game, hope LSU doesn't sweep Auburn or Alabama doesn't sweep Mississippi State.

When you factor in national seeding for the NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks, the lone SEC team with 40 wins, have a lot riding on the outcome when they square off with the Commodores in Music City.

The two teams are tied for second in the SEC East and third overall on the SEC ladder with identical 16-11 marks. Mississippi State, which travels to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama, holds the same conference mark. Currently, Florida (19-8) and Ole Miss (17-10) are first and second in the SEC standings, and have the inside track on securing the top two seeds in the SEC Tournament.

Even though USC fell a spot in the new NCAA Baseball RPI unveiled Tuesday after sweeping Missouri this past weekend at home, the Gamecocks carry a five-game winning streak into Thursday's series opener.

"What is important is how you play late in the year," Chad Holbrook said following the 10-1 victory over the Bulldogs in the final regular season home game for the Gamecocks. "Tournament time is going to be important. This weekend is important, obviously. Let's just try to win our next game.

"We're in a good spot. Considering the circumstances, we've done as well as we could do. That's why I'm proud of my guys."

With two national titles and three trips to the national championship series since 2010, the Gamecocks are widely admired for performing well under pressure. And this weekend will encapsulate pressure into 27 innings of close, hard-fought baseball.

"When you come to South Carolina, you know there are going to be big series on the docket," Holbrook said. "I hope our players embrace playing in big games. Our players know this series is important, but there are more games after this weekend. Do we want to put ourselves in a good spot? Absolutely.

"But I don't want them to feel sorry for themselves if things don't go well because we can still win a conference tournament championship and get to Omaha and compete for the national championship. There are a lot of things to play for. Our guys know this weekend is important for standings, rankings, all that stuff."

Vanderbilt leads the SEC in doubles by a wide margin - 112 in 52 games. The next highest team (Kentucky) has 92 doubles. Playing in a spacious, doubles-friendly ballpark (Hawkins Field) boosts the number of two-baggers for the Commodores.

"It's a big ballpark, the outfield is extremely large," Holbrook said. "They also play on artificial turf and the ball tends to skip when it gets to the outfield. It's often difficult for outfielders to cut the ball off.

"On top of that, they have good hitters. They have some big strong guys and some guys that can really run. They're a good team. They're capable of winning the national championship. But baseball is played between the white lines and we're going to give it our best shot."

Being one of the team leaders, junior catcher Grayson Greiner's message to his fellow Gamecock players is the Commodores are a well-rounded team playing in front of their home fans, so USC must match their intensity in every phase.

"Every year since I've been here, they've been one of the most, if not the most, talented teams we've played," Greiner said. "They are fundamentally sound and well coached. They have elite talent, It's going to be difficult for us. But we are going to go up there and give them our best shot. We've been playing a little better of late in all phases and we're starting to get some guys healthy again."

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)


-- With the conference tournament scheduled to get underway Tuesday with four single elimination games on the docket in Hoover, Ala., all games this weekend are set for Thursday-Saturday. Here is this weekend's upcoming SEC schedule:

USC at Vanderbilt
Florida at Tennessee
Kentucky at Georgia
Arkansas at Missouri
Mississippi State at Alabama
LSU at Auburn
Ole Miss at Texas A&M

-- Tuesday's victory gives USC 40 or more wins for the 15th straight season.

-- Holbrook said USC practiced early Tuesday and took extra batting practice, something the Gamecocks rarely do. But he sensed his players had a bundle of energy. "They were bouncing around the stadium all day ready to go," Holbrook said. "it showed in the way they played."

-- USC starter Reed Scott threw 106 pitches in 7.0 innings pitched on Tuesday. Since he throws side-arm, Holbrook didn't rule him out from contributing on Saturday in the event he is needed against a right-handed hitter.

-- Holbrook calculated USC is 33-3 this season when it is healthy and have most or all of its core players in the lineup.


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