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Preview: Holbrook, Gamecocks wary of struggling Mizzou

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Chad Holbrook and USC are tied for the best SEC record so far in 2016
Chris Gillespie, Gamecock Central

WHAT: Missouri (20-18, 4-11) at South Carolina (30-8, 11-4)

WHERE: Founders Park, Columbia, SC

WHEN: Friday 7 p.m.; Saturday 4 p.m., Sunday 1:30 p.m. (All times Eastern)

RADIO/TV: Gamecock Radio Network (107.5 FM in Columbia with Andy Demetra and Tommy Moody); SEC Network Plus (Derek Scott, Brad Muller and Caroline Cann)

All-TIME SERIES: USC leads 6-4

LAST TIME: Missouri won, 5-1, on May 19, 2015 at SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.

PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS:

Friday: USC RHP Clarke Schmidt (8-1, 1.66 ERA, 65.0 IP, 80 K, 10 BB) vs. MIZ Reggie McClain (3-2, 3.92 ERA, 64.1 IP, 54 K, 5 BB)

Saturday: USC RHP Braden Webb (7-2, 3.46 ERA, 52.0 IP, 66 K, 27 BB) vs. MIZ Tanner Houck (4-3, 3.22 ERA, 64.1 IP, 70 K, 18 BB)

Sunday: USC RHP Aaron Hill (5-0, 2.95 ERA, 42.2 IP, 50 K, 16 BB) vs. MIZ Michael Plassmeyer (3-3, 4.91 ERA, 36.2 IP, 22 K, 7 BB)

Missouri’s conference record is less than striking but in the eyes of South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook the Tigers remain a dangerous foe nonetheless for two reasons.

Reggie McClain and Tanner Houck.

Missouri’s Friday and Saturday starting pitchers rank among the best in the SEC from a talent perspective and both are likely high round draft picks. Their combined record of 7-5 is mainly the byproduct of paltry offensive support from teammates as Missouri’s team batting average of .253 is next-to-last in the SEC.

Best example? A month ago, Houck yielded just two hits in hurling nine shutout innings against Vanderbilt but the Tigers couldn’t scratch on the scoreboard either and eventually lost, 2-0, in 11 innings.

In two career starts against USC, the senior McClain is 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched with just 11 hits and three runs allowed. In short, he has been very effective against the Gamecocks.

How highly regarded are McClain (87-91 FB; devastating changeup) and Houck (92-96 FB, slider, changeup)? The former is rated the No. 8 college senior for the 2016 MLB draft, while the latter is tabbed the No. 1 overall prospect for the 2017 draft by Baseball America.

Houck has twice been named SEC Pitcher of the Week this season.

“Missouri is going to present a lot of challenges for us and it certainly begins with their Friday and Saturday starters,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said Thursday during his weekly press conference previewing the Missouri series. “Those two guys are as good as anybody in the league. From a pitchability standpoint, McClain is one of the most polished pitchers in the league. We’re going to have our hands full with those guys.”

Friday’s matchup between USC’s Clarke Schmidt, who has hurled complete games in two of his last three starts and has 10 strikeouts in each of his last two games, and McClain features two of the SEC East’s top right-handed hurlers.

In five SEC starts, Schmidt has 48 strikeouts compared to five walks in 36.2 innings. Schmidt leads the SEC in wins (8), innings pitched (65.0) and strikeouts (80).

“He has had a phenomenal year,” Holbrook said. “I saw how he pitched against our guys in the fall and preseason scrimmages, but you never know once the season starts how things will unfold. He hasn’t missed a beat all year long. He throws strikes, he has power stuff, he has worked extremely hard to put himself in this position. Through 38 games, he is in my book a first-team All-American. We had to have a performance like this to be in the situation we are in.”

Gamecock freshman Braden Webb, looking to bounce back after his first poor outing of the season at Georgia last weekend when he was belted for eight runs and nine hits in 2.1 innings, faces Houck on Saturday.

In his previous two starts against Vanderbilt and Tennessee, Webb allowed four runs on nine hits and five walks with 21 strikeouts and five walks in 15.1 IP. He has yet to suffer a loss at Founders Park.

How will Webb respond to adversity? Holbrook isn’t concerned.

“Braden is only thinking about the next pitch,” Holbrook said. “He doesn’t carry previous performances around. He is a happy-go-lucky guy. He is very unique in a good way. Some guys might carry the previous game into the next one, but Braden doesn’t do that. He just wants to pitch well the next time. I have the utmost confidence in him. He is not worried about what happened at Georgia. I won’t coach many Braden Webbs from a makeup and personality standpoint.”

Aside from the stellar pitching matchups on Friday and Saturday, the biggest news emanating from the weekend is whether Gene Cone is able to set a new school record for longest single season hitting streak in school history.

Cone carries a 24-game hitting streak into the Missouri series, one short of the 25-game record established by Greg Keatley in 1976. The overall school record is 26 games set by Whit Merrifield over a two-season span in 2009-10 (14 games in 2009; 12 in 2010).

After struggling last season at the plate, Cone is batting .331 (39-118) with 30 runs scored and 12 RBI. His most impressive stat? Cone has 22 walks and 13 strikeouts in 118 at-bats this season.

“He has been very consistent, probably our most consistent player,” Holbrook said. “Gene is very experienced, he has worked hard and he is very comfortable. I am very happy for him. I knew he could play like this and be a very good player.”

STATS + FACTS by DOUG ADAMS

Gamecocks vs. Missouri: The Tigers won three of four meetings last year against Carolina. Mizzou won two of three in Columbia before winning in Hoover at the 2015 SEC Tournament...Six of the 10 games played between the two teams have been decided by two runs or less.. .Carolina is 3-0 against the Tigers in Founders Park. The Gamecocks swept Missouri in 2014.

Recapping Georgia: UGA took two of three games last weekend in Athens, and have now won six of the last nine in the series...Georgia plated 13 runs on Saturday against Carolina, the most the Bulldogs have scored against USC since scoring 13 on May 19, 2007 in Columbia...The nine-run win for Georgia on Saturday was the Bulldogs largest against USC since April 12, 1997 when UGA won, 17-5, in Athens...Carolina has lost three straight series to the Bulldogs.

Stealing Bases: Opponents are 32 of 43 on stolen base attempts against Carolina this season, including 16 of 21 by SEC opponents. USC is 46 of 61 overall on stolen base attempts, 10 of 16 in SEC games. USC stole five bases Wednesday night at Furman.

Going Deep: Carolina has hit one home run in the last seven games...Georgia hit six against the Gamecocks last weekend in Athens...USC has 24 home runs this season while allowing 16.

Extra Base Hits: The four games prior to Furman, USC had 28 hits with three being for extra bases. In the same time span, opponents had 43 hits with 13 for extra base hits. Carolina had eight extra base hits against the Paladins Wednesday night.

Recapping Furman: The Gamecocks lead the all-time series with Furman, 114-55-2...Carolina won 14-4 on Wednesday at Fluor Field and defeated the Paladins earlier this season 5-4 in Columbia...Dom Thompson-Williams was 4-4 with three doubles. The three doubles tied a single-game school record. DTW had a career high four hits. His previous career high was three...TJ Hopkins went 4-5 with three runs scored and two runs batted in. The four hits were a career high. His previous career high was three against Davidson on March 16, 2016...Marcus Mooney was 3-3 with three runs scored and three RBI…Reed Scott picked up the win to improve his record to 2-1 on the season...Taylor Widener pitched 4.2 innings, allowing three runs on six hits and one walk. He struck out seven. The seven strikeouts tied his career high of seven against Auburn on May 2, 2015...The 18 hits by USC marked the first time they had more than 10 in a game since March 25 at Ole Miss. The 18 hits are the third most by USC this season. Carolina had 19 hits against Penn State on February 27 and 19 against Davidson on March 16. ... The 14 runs by USC were the first time they scored more than 10 in a game since March 18 vs. Arkansas...The five games prior to Furman, USC combined to score 14 runs.

Turning It Around: USC lost three of four games from March 29 to April 2, but bounced back to win four in a row before losing three of four between April 13 and April 17. USC scored 18 runs in that four-game stretch from March 29 to April 2, but scored only 10 runs from April 13 to April 17. Carolina started the turn around on Wednesday night with a 14-4 win over Furman at Fluor Field in Greenville.

No Place Like Home: USC is 22-1 at Founders Park this season. They are 8-7 in games away from it…Three of the last four weekend series have been away from Founders Park...Carolina went 5-4 in those three road weekend series (3-0 at Ole Miss, 1-2 at Vandy, 1-2 at UGA).

Adam Hill: Career high six innings pitched against Appalachian State and Ole Miss...Pitched at least five innings in six starts...1-0 with a 5.01 ERA in SEC play.

Taylor Widener: Pitched 2/3 of an inning against Missouri on May 10, 2014 allowing one hit and one walk. He struck out two...Pitched 2.1 innings on March 21, 2015 at Missouri allowing two runs on six hits and two walks. He struck out three...1-2 with 4.25 ERA in eight appearances. He has seven starts on the season.

Brandon Murray: Faced Missouri twice last season (3/22/15 and 5/19/15) combining for 6.1 innings allowing two runs on three hits and two walks. ... Pitched 17.1 innings in 16 appearances this season.

Josh Reagan: Pitched 2/3 of an inning against Missouri on May 9, 2014 allowing one hit and striking out one...1-1 with 10 saves in 19 appearances...Has 27 strikeouts to nine walks in 30.2 innings pitched.

Reed Scott: 2-1 with a 3.49 ERA in 17 appearances...Has 16 strikeouts to seven walks in 28.1 innings pitched.

Gene Cone: Hitting .379 in SEC play...One of three Gamecocks to have at least two home runs in SEC action. The other two are John Jones and DC Arendas...Enters the Missouri series this weekend with a 24 game hitting streak, longest by a Gamecock this season...Has reached base safely in 27 straight games, tying the longest streak by a Gamecock this season. John Johns also reached base safely in 27 straight games....Hit leadoff in 21 straight games...Overall batting average is .331 on the season.

Alex Destino: Batting .350 in SEC play with eight runs batted in...Hitting .344 overall with four home runs and 32 runs batted in...Third on the team with 45 hits.

Dom Thompson-Williams: Hitting .245 against SEC opponents with one double, two triples and 12 runs batted in....Batted in the five spot for six straight games...Batting .346 overall on the year with 11 doubles, three triples and four home runs...Leads the team with a .559 slugging percentage.

Chris Cullen: Averaging .220 in SEC play with nine runs batted in...Hitting .274 overall with 19 runs batted in.

John Jones: Hitting .267 in SEC action with two home runs and 12 runs batted in...Hit in the three spot in 33 of 38 games this season...Second on the Gamecocks with 46 hits...Batting .315 overall with six homers and 37 runs batted in...His 37 RBI leads the team.

Marcus Mooney: Batting .217 with seven runs batted in against SEC foes...Batting .314 overall with one home run and 21 runs batted in...Third on the team with eight doubles.

Jonah Bride: Hitting .268 in SEC play with one homer and seven runs batted in...Started every game this season at third base...Batting .261 overall with one home run and 17 runs batted in.

LT Tolbert: Started at second base on Wednesday at Furman as Matt Williams got the start at first. ... Hitting .232 overall with five doubles, one triple and two home runs.

SEC SCHEDULE (April 21-24)

(ALL THREE GAME SERIES)

Missouri at South Carolina

Arkansas at Kentucky (Thur-Sat)

Georgia at Florida (Thur-Sat)

Vanderbilt at Tennessee

Alabama at Texas A&M

Auburn at Ole Miss

Mississippi State at LSU

SEC EAST STANDINGS

South Carolina 11-4

Florida 11-4

Vanderbilt 9-6

Kentucky 9-6

Georgia 6-9

Tennessee 4-11

Missouri 4-11