Something old and something new were front and center for South Carolina on Saturday.
Senior LB Dantzler collected a career-high four hits, highlighted by a line-drive three-run homer, that provided the Gamecocks with much-needed breathing room in the sixth inning and drove in five runs as USC built an early advantage and cruised to a solid 8-3 victory over Albany in front of a sparse crowd at misty Carolina Stadium.
USC, which didn't commit an error in Saturday's game, carries a 3-1 record into Sunday's noon doubleheader against the Great Danes.
"I thought our kids played well and they played hard," USC coach Chad Holbrook said. "Collectively, we had a lot better plate approaches and our bats were solid. Even our outs were pretty good swings. I felt good about the way we played offensively and defensively."
Dantzler, batting cleanup for the third time in four games, was far from alone in lifting USC to another early-season victory in chilly, wet conditions.
Newcomers Graham Saiko, a junior-college transfer thriving in the leadoff spot, reached base five times (three walks, two singles), while freshman right-hander Curt Britt was splendid in relief in his mound debut for the Gamecocks, working the final four innings and retiring 12 of 14 batters to earn his first career save.
Saiko and Dantzler joined forces to give USC a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on a walk and clutch two-out RBI single. An inning later, USC strung together five singles and a walk to score three times to take a 4-0 lead.
A keen batting eye and good plate discipline are the secrets behind Saiko's sensational start after joining the USC program from Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College last August.
"Graham Saiko is a good player. He doesn't chase pitches out of the zone and he makes you throw strikes," Holbrook said. "And he's a pretty good hitter when you throw it in there. I'm certainly pleased with the way he played."
Saiko, Dantzler and Joey Pankake had RBI singles in the inning off Albany starter Kasceim Graham, who lasted just 2.1 innings before being knocked out. His replacement, Cameron Sorgie, threw the final 5.1 innings, allowing three runs on four hits.
One of the hits given up by Sorgie was Dantzler's sizzling three-run frozen rope over the right-field wall in the sixth.
"It was a breaking ball, but I was sitting fastball," Dantzler said. "I was just looking to get something out over the plate that I could drive for a sacrifice fly. I was able to keep my hands inside, and it carried out."
Dantzler's timely blast came after Albany has crawled to within 5-2 with single runs off USC starter Jordan Montgomery in the fourth and fifth innings.
"LB is feeling good at the plate and he's very confident," Holbrook said. "He's putting good swings on it. Even the balls he fouls back, he's just missing them. He's getting a good look and swinging aggressively. He's a senior and we needed him to get off to this kind of start."
Montgomery improved his record to 2-0 with his second encouraging performance in the early going, lowering his early-season ERA to 1.64. He yielded two runs on five hits with five strikeouts and three walks.
"I don't think Jordan had his best stuff by any stretch, but he battled and competed," Holbrook said. "He didn't throw strike one a lot today. His first pitches weren't over the plate. But you have to give Albany credit. They didn't chase any pitches out of the zone. They had a good plan against him."
After allowing a solo homer in the fourth, Montgomery escaped a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the top of the fifth when he fell behind 3-0 to Joey Tracy and risked forcing home a run.
But the lefthander from Sumter reared back and fired three straight strikes past Tracy to get out of the inning with just one run allowed.
Holbrook recognized the importance of the strikeout afterwards.
"That let us catch our breath a bit," Holbrook said. "Jordan showed me something there by throwing three strikes in a row with the bases loaded, a 3-0 count and we're only up three runs. We felt in control at that point.
"Then LB came back in the bottom of the sixth with the big three-run home run."
Montgomery also left runners stranded in scoring position in each of the first two innings, including a first-and-third situation in the top of the second when he fanned the No. 9 hitter to keep the Great Danes scoreless.
"He didn't have his off-speed pitch and the changeup is Jordan's best pitch, for the most part," Holbrook said. "He didn't have that today and his breaking balls were just OK. He threw a lot of balls on his off-speed stuff. That wasn't typical Jordan Montgomery. But he kept them at bay and made big pitches when he had to."
Britt mowed down the first nine Albany batters he faced as just two balls left the infield. The freshman from Laurinburg, N.C., cruised into the ninth before allowing one run on a two-out RBI single to right.
However, the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder, fanned his third batter to end the opener of a three-game series with a flourish.
"I felt pretty good just going out and pounding the strike zone and working ahead," Britt said. "That was my main goal. In the last inning, I ran into a little bit of adversity, but it was a chilly night."
Holbrook talked optimistically about Britt during preseason and Saturday's outing showed why the coach's expectations were high.
"Curt Britt was special for a freshman in his first outing, so that was great to see," Holbrook said.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME: It was a tie between Dantzler and Saiko. The duo combined for six of USC's 11 hits, six RBIs and three runs scored. Dantzler is batting .500 (7-for-14) after four games with two homers and eight RBIs. Saiko's on-base percentage soared past .500 as a result of his excellent day at the plate.
KEY MOMENT: Albany was hiking the comeback trail in the top of the fifth when Montgomery was forced to work out of trouble. One run had already scored on a single and the bases were loaded with two outs. Albany's No. 5 hitter was the plate and Montgomery had nowhere to put him. The southpaw fell behind 3-0 in the count and a loud murmur spread through the hearty crowd. But he rebounded to record the strikeout. Albany didn't get another runner on base until the ninth when they scored a meaningless run.
TURNING POINT: USC was ahead 5-2 in the bottom of the sixth and another tense finish was perhaps on the horizon. Saiko singled to begin the inning and Max Schrock walked, putting two runners on with one out. Dantzler's missile on a 2-1 delivery from Sorgie carried over the right-field wall to push USC to a six-run lead. Britt did most of the heavy lifting after that.
HOW THE RUNS SCORED
USC 1st - Saiko walked, Schrock fouled to short, Pankake grounded to first, Dantzler singled to left (RBI), Greiner singled to center, Payne flied to right. ONE RUN, TWO HITS (USC 1-0).
USC 2nd - Costen singled to left, Vergason walked, English singled to pitcher (bunt), Saiko singled to left (RBI), Schrock popped to short (IFR), Pankake singled to right (RBI), Dantzler singled to short (RBI), Greiner reached on fielder's choice (5-2), Payne grounded to short. THREE RUNS, FIVE HITS (USC 4-0).
USC 3rd - Costen popped to second, Vergason hit by pitch, English hit by pitch, Saiko walked, Schrock hit sacrifice fly to center (RBI) and English thrown out at third (8-6-5). ONE RUN, NO HITS (USAC 5-0).
ALB 4th - Muller popped to first, Tracy flied to right, Nethaway homered to left, Bullard grounded to second. ONE RUN, ONE HIT (5-1).
ALB 5th - Mund singled to short, Lepre walked, Gaige sacrificed (1-3), Madej singled to left-center (RBI), Hoagboon lined to center, Muller walked, Tracy struckout. ONE RUN, TWO HITS (USC 5-2).
USC 6th - Saiko singled to center, Saiko advanced to second on balk, Saiko advanced to third on passed ball, Schrock walked, Pankake struckout, Dantzler homered to right (3 RBI), Greiner struckout, Payne singled to center, Costen struckout. THREE RUNS, THREE HITS (USC 8-2).
ALB 9th - Nethaway hit by pitch, Bullard doubled to right-center (Nethaway thrown out 9-4-3-5-2), Mund fouled to first, Harasta (PH) singled to right (RBI), Gaige struckout. GAME OVER (USC 8-3).