Besides functioning as freshman Gene Cone's coming out party, the vital series win at Auburn this past weekend served as redemption for the South Carolina bullpen.
Two weekends ago, the Gamecock bullpen allowed two late-game leads to slip away in back-to-back frustrating home losses to SEC East rival Florida.
So, Chad Holbrook shortened his bullpen.
Stalwarts Chad Mincey and Joel Seddon were the only relievers called upon on the Plains, combining to hold Auburn scoreless over 5.1 innings, allowing five hits with five strikeouts and two walks.
Their performances helped USC post its 14th straight series victory over Auburn dating back to 1998, ending the Gamecocks' five-game losing streak in the process.
"We battled through some adversity that has been out of our control from an injury standpoint and finding a way to win a big series on the road," Holbrook said. "I hope it gives us some momentum going forward."
After Jack Wynkoop worked seven effective innings in Game 2, allowing eight hits and two runs, Mincey escaped a bases-loaded, no outs situation in the bottom of the eighth without surrendering a run. When USC scored twice in the top of the ninth to take the lead, Seddon set down all three batters he faced in the bottom half for his 10th save of the season.
Seddon hurled the final 2.1 innings in USC's exciting 4-3 victory on Easter Sunday to record his second win of the season, dropping his microscopic ERA to 0.33 in 27.1 innings with just two runs and 10 hits allowed.
"I just try to fill up the bottom of the strike zone," Seddon said after Sunday's win. "I don't think there was any more pressure on me. I like going out there when the game is on the line or we're ahead by a run or two. I just focus on throwing strikes."
After surrendering four runs in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, four USC pitchers limited Auburn to five runs over the final 25 innings.
Mincey's great escape in the bottom of the eighth in Game 2 will surely be remembered as one of the top moments of the 2014 season. With the bases loaded and no outs, Mincey fought back from a 3-0 count (one ball from forcing home a run) to strike out the Auburn batter for the first out. Another strikeout and a liner directly at Jordan Gore at second ended the inning.
Mincey tops USC with 21 appearances in 40 games, meaning he has taken the mound in more than half of USC's games this season. Despite his problems two weekends ago against Florida, his numbers are still sparkling: 3-0 record and 0.75 ERA in 24.0 IP, 14 hits and two runs allowed, 35 strikeouts and 11 walks.
Filling in for the injured Connor Bright (he started Game 1), Cone delivered a game-tying RBI double in the top of the ninth of Game 2, which was followed by Gore's run-scoring single (after Auburn had intentionally walked Tanner English) that gave USC a one-run lead.
Sunday, Cone stroked a sacrifice fly in the top of the eighth inning to snap a 3-3 tie by plating Kyle Martin with the eventual game-winning run as Seddon slammed the door in Auburn's final two at-bats.
Cone, a Spring Valley High product, was 4-for-6 with 3 RBI and eight putouts in right field during USC's pair of wins at Auburn. He had just three hits in 29 at-bats before the start of the series.
USC had lost its previous two series at the hands of Arkansas and Florida, so the Gamecocks essentially faced a must-win situation at Auburn. USC captured its first SEC road series after previously losing two of three at Kentucky and Arkansas.
"Persevering and finding ourselves where we are (30-10 overall), I'm proud of my team," Holbrook said. "If we can find a way to get healthy, we'll be difficult to beat because our pitching staff has done a great job."
After midweek home games against Davidson and USC Upstate, the Gamecocks have an opportunity to narrow or even eliminate the gap with the SEC frontrunners when they host Alabama (28-12, 12-6) in a three-game series starting Friday at 7 p.m.
The Crimson Tide is tied with Florida for the best record in the SEC, two games ahead of USC, after winning two of three games at Tennessee this past weekend. Thus, a series sweep over Alabama could propel USC into one of the top two marks in the conference.
But Alabama has catapulted to the top of the SEC standings by posting four straight SEC series win. In fact, the Tide has won five of six SEC series this season. However, the conference schedule toughens for Alabama over the next three weekends with series against USC, Florida and LSU.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Gene Cone
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 2-3
OVERALL RECORD: 30-10 (10-8 SEC)
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 11 in Baseball America, No. 18 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 10 in Perfect Game USA.
LAST WEEK'S RESULTS:
April 15 vs. Charleston Southern, L 4-1
April 16 at The Citadel, L 10-8
April 18 at Auburn, L 4-2
April 19 at Auburn, W 3-2
April 20 at Auburn, W 4-3
THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE:
April 22 vs. Davidson, 7 p.m.
April 23 vs. USC Upstate, 7 p.m.
April 25 vs. Alabama, 7 p.m.
April 26 vs. Alabama, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
April 27 vs. Alabama, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
(All Times Eastern)
-- After going 0-for-4 in Game 1 of the Auburn series, catcher Grayson Greiner rebounded in Games 2 and 3 with a combined six hits and two RBI. Overall, he batted .500 (6-for-12) for the Auburn series. Greiner drove in a pair of runs in Sunday's 4-3 win. Greiner is currently hitting .326 (44-for-135) with seven doubles, four homers and a team-high 36 RBI. Greiner also owns a team-best .467 slugging percentage.
-- Martin and Bright are tied for the team lead in hitting with identical .340 batting averages. Martin carries a nine-game hitting streak into Tuesday's game against Davidson, and leads USC with 17 multi-hit games. Martin is batting a team-leading .320 (24-for-75) in SEC contests.
-- Bright started Game 1 of the Auburn series, but his elbow tightened up and he couldn't bend it. As a result, Cone started Games 2 and 3. In addition, Elliott Caldwell was lifted from Game 3 due to a bad back. Marcus Mooney started Game 3 at shortstop and played despite a fever.
-- Wynkoop leads USC with 61.0 IP and is second in strikeouts (45). His strikeout-to-walk ratio is an amazing 5.6-to-1 (45 strikeouts, 8 walks).
-- Jordan Montgomery hurled USC's first complete game of the season in the Game 1 loss at Auburn. The left-hander from Sumter yielded just four hits in a hard-luck 4-2 loss. The Tigers scored all four runs in the first inning, an early deficit USC couldn't overcome. Montgomery is 5-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 59.2 IP. His career record is 17-5.
-- USC is hitting .282 (388-for-1374) for the year with a .355 on-base percentage and a .384 slugging percentage.
-- The Gamecocks own a 2.10 team ERA in 364.0 innings with opponents batting .219 against them. Defensively, USC has a team fielding percentage of .974 with 39 errors in 40 games.
Batting Average: Connor Bright, Kyle Martin (.340)
At-bats: Kyle Martin (156)
Runs: Joey Pankake (35)
Hits: Kyle Martin (53)
Doubles: Connor Bright (10)
Triples: Marcus Mooney and Tanner English (1)
Home Runs: Max Schrock (5)
RBI: Grayson Greiner (36)
Total Bases: Kyle Martin (72)
Slugging Pct: Grayson Greiner (.467)
Walks: Grayson Greiner (17)
On-Base Pct: Kyle Martin (.398)
Stolen Bases: Tanner English (9).
SEC EAST STANDINGS: Florida 12-6, USC 10-8, Kentucky 9-9, Vanderbilt 8-10, Georgia 7-10-1, Tennessee 7-11, Missouri 6-12.
OVERALL SEC STANDINGS:
1. Florida 12-6, Alabama 12-6
3. LSU 10-7-1
4. South Carolina 10-8, Ole Miss 10-8, Mississippi State 10-8
7. Kentucky 9-9, Arkansas 9-9
9. Vanderbilt 8-10, Texas A&M 8-10
11. Georgia 7-10-1
12. Tennessee 7-11, Auburn 7-11
14. Missouri 6-12.
Note: Twelve teams qualify for SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., from May 20-25.