Bolstered by a stable lineup, great defense, strong starting pitching and the return of closer Tyler Webb after a two-week absence, South Carolina jumped back into the thick of the SEC race with an impressive three-game sweep over visiting Kentucky at Carolina Stadium.
It wasn't easy, of course, against the previously ranked Wildcats since USC won the three games by a combined six runs and trailed in every, and needed 11 innings before prevailing in Game 2 on Saturday night.
The sweep allowed USC (31-10 overall, 11-7 SEC) to jump into a third-place tie with Arkansas, one game ahead of Florida, Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the overall league standings. The Gamecocks could climb closer to the top of the ladder by the end of the first week in May since they face LSU (15-3 in SEC) and league leader Vanderbilt (16-2) over the next two weekends.
When they do, head coach Chad Holbrook hopes to rely upon the same starting lineup he utilized in all three victories over Kentucky - catcher Grayson Greiner, an infield consisting of first baseman LB Dantzler, second baseman Max Schrock, third baseman Chase Vergason and shortstop Joey Pankake, along with the outfield trio of leftfielder Graham Saiko, centerfielder Tanner English and rightfielder Connor Bright.
"There are still some other guys I want to get in there and give them some opportunities," Holbrook said Monday on 107.5 FM The Game. "But we did stay consistent with our lineup this weekend. For the most part, we will do that as we go forward even though there might be a spot or two for another kid who deserves a crack at it.
"We're settling in. That does help us in some regards, and it certainly looked like it did this weekend. But you still have to go play well and we did. We put a lot of things together from the way we played defense to our pitchers. We made some winning plays. It was fun to watch them play."
Holbrook made just one change to the lineup in the three games: replacing Dantzler with pinch-runner T.J. Costen in Game 2 and quickly inserting Kyle Martin as the first baseman. Martin sparked the game-winning rally in the 11th inning with a single.
Sticking with the same core group of starters paid dividends for the Gamecocks as USC continued to surge at the plate against SEC pitching, hitting .318 (35-for-110) for the weekend with a .372 on-base percentage. In the last three SEC series (nine games), USC has a combined batting average of .327 (108-for-331) with 61 runs scored.
On the mound, Gamecock pitchers compiled a 2.17 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 29 innings against Kentucky. The starting rotation of senior Nolan Belcher (7.2 IP, six hits, two runs), sophomore Jordan Montgomery (5.2 IP, three runs, four hits in first start at Carolina Stadium since Feb. 22) and freshman Jack Wynkoop (8.0 IP, one run, nine hits) combined for 16 strikeouts and two walks in 21.1 innings against Kentucky while throwing strikes 71 percent of the time (314 pitches, 223 strikes).
"Nolan has been terrific all year," Holbrook said of Belcher, who improved his record to 6-3 with a 1.70 ERA in 74 innings pitched. "He gives us a chance to win when he pitches. He's a leader of our team. He defines what our program is all about.
"Jordan is getting close (to his pre-injury form). He was a lot better this weekend than he was last weekend at Florida. He seems to getting into a routine and getting his arm in shape. He hasn't been sore between his starts. Hopefully, he can stay pain free."
Wynkoop was honored Monday as the SEC Freshman of the Week, becoming the fourth different Gamecock player to be recognized for conference accolades, joining Dantzler (SEC Player of the Week in Week 2), Pankake (SEC Player of the Week in Week 4) and Schrock (SEC Freshman of the Week in Week 8).
Putting faith in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," philosophy, Holbrook plans to employ the same starting trio this weekend at LSU, providing all three lefthanders with perhaps the biggest tests of their careers.
"After a weekend like this, I'm not changing it, especially if they're all healthy," Holbrook said. "I'm not going to rock the boat. They all threw well and kept us in the game. Our roles are getting defined. We need some other guys to throw well, but I feel certain we'll stay with Belcher, Montgomery and Wynkoop."
In addition to winning three SEC games, the best news Holbrook may have received all weekend was the somewhat unexpected return of closer Tyler Webb. Sidelined for two weeks with a muscle strain in his left arm, Webb put an exclamation mark on Saturday's 7-6 win in 11 innings by hurling three almost flawless innings, retiring nine of the 10 Kentucky batters he faced. He was credited with the win when USC scored in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Sunday, Webb returned to the mound, closing out the 3-1 win by throwing 14 pitches (12 strikes) to record his 12th save of the season. In four total innings, Webb held Kentucky scoreless on two hits while striking out six of the 14 Wildcat batters he faced.
Goodbye, arm problems?
"Tyler Webb has been an All-American at the end of games," Holbrook said. "He seems fine. He was in this morning getting treatment. He is being proactive. That kid has worked very hard. He seems very healthy. I thought he had great life on the ball this weekend. It was jumping out of his hand and he was as sharp as a tack. He's had a great senior year."
Webb is 2-1 with a 0.64 ERA and 12 saves in 19 relief appearances on the season. He has 42 strikeouts to just seven walks in 28.0 innings pitched. Opponents are hitting a lowly .165 against him (16 hits allowed).
His two appearances this past weekend pushed Webb's career total to 97, five short of the school record of 102 set by Matt Price (2009-12).
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Joey Pankake and Max Schrock
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 4-0
OVERALL RECORD: 31-10 (11-7 SEC)
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 15 in Baseball America, No. 15 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 10 in USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll.
LAST WEEK'S RESULTS:
April 16 vs. College of Charleston, W 10-5
April 19 vs. Kentucky, W 5-2
April 20 vs. Kentucky, W 7-6 (11 Inn.)
April 21 vs. Kentucky, W 3-1
VOYAGE TO BATON ROUGE: Tied with Arkansas for the third-best record in the SEC, the Gamecocks hit the road this week for four games and won't return to Carolina Stadium until Friday, May 3 when they begin a vital three-game home series against Vanderbilt.
USC ventures to Shelby, NC, for a game with Gardner-Webb at renovated Keeter Stadium, the permanent site of the American Legion World Series.
"They do a great job and it's a very good baseball town," Holbrook said. "The facility has become the Omaha of American Legion affiliation. I just felt like it would be neat for our kids to go play Gardner-Webb there. We're told it's a sellout, so there will be 5,000 people there. It's a neat environment.
"It's great to bring the Gamecocks into an area where we're very active in recruiting. I think the world of the Gardner-Webb program and their coach."
Upon returning to Columbia, the Gamecocks start preparations for the long trip to Baton Rouge to face No. 2 LSU, who are 37-4 overall, 15-3 in the SEC with 60 percent of the conference schedule complete, at the new Alex Box Stadium.
Right now, LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, named to the 2013 Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award Watch List, is the front-runner for national Freshman of the Year honors. Bregman is LSU's leading hitter with an astounding .414 batting average (72-for-174), 11 doubles, seven triples, five homers, 41 RBI, 45 runs scored and 10 stolen bases.
He leads the SEC in batting average, hits, runs scored, total bases and triples. The Albuquerque, N.M., native has been invited to join Team USA for its 33-game international tour this summer.
THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE
April 23 vs. Gardner-Webb (at Shelby, NC), 6 p.m.
April 26 at LSU, 8 p.m. (Cox Sports)
April 27 at LSU, 7:30 p.m. (Cox Sports)
April 28 at LSU, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
(All Times Eastern)
* Holbrook said USC has not abandoned plans to use Pankake on the mound. The sophomore has thrown two bullpen sessions with another scheduled for this week. USC is trying to pick the right spot to use him in a game, Holbrook said.
* Definition of balanced offensive attack: seven different Gamecock players drove in at least one run against Kentucky and seven different players scored at least one run.
* Pankake hit .500 (7-for-14) against Kentucky with a homer, two RBI and three runs scored. Pankake has improved his average to .311 average (47-for-151) for the season with eight homers and 30
* Schrock is tied with Pankake for the team lead with 13 multi-hit games. Schrock also hit .500 for the weekend (5-for-10) with three runs scored and a pair of RBI. After a slow start at the plate, Schrock is now hitting a respectable .277 (39-for-141) with 30 runs scored and 30 RBI, adding seven doubles and four homers. Schrock leads USC with 12 stolen bases.
* Dantzler is again the team's leading hitter with a .331 average (48-for-145) with 12 homers and 42 RBI. He had two homers against Kentucky, including a towering two-run shot over the centerfield fence on Sunday. Dantzler ranks among the SEC league leaders in numerous categories, including third in home runs (12), third in slugging percentage (.669), fourth in walks (28), fourth in total bases (97), tied for fourth in runs batted in (42), tied for fifth in doubles (11), and ninth in on-base percentage (.444).
* Belcher is second in the SEC in innings pitched (74.0), fifth in earned run average (1.70), sixth in strikeouts (61), tied for eighth in wins (6) and 11th in opposing batting average (.218).
* Junior DH Brison Celek will carry a nine-game hitting streak into Tuesday's game against Gardner-Webb, the longest of his career. He overcame four strikeouts to deliver the game-winning hit in the nightcap of Saturday's doubleheader. Celek is hitting .308 (16-for-52) with 11 RBI and nine runs scored.
* USC is hitting .290 (396-for-1366) as a team, fourth best in the SEC. The Gamecocks lead the SEC with 39 homers. Defensively, USC has a fielding percentage of .974 with 40 errors in 41 games. Their slugging percentage of .436 is third best in the SEC with the on-base percentage of .386 fourth best in the conference.