AUBURN, Ala. - Ray Tanner thought that South Carolina's offense could be productive. It just needed a little something to fan the spark into a flame.
On Sunday, Auburn's defensive ineptness and a strong wind sweeping out to right field turned the flame into an inferno.
The No. 9 Gamecocks popped the Tigers 11-7 to complete their second straight SEC series sweep, scoring 28 runs over the three games and continuing their 15-year mastery of the Plainsmen. USC (30-11, 11-7 SEC) is also fully back in the race for the SEC championship, tied with Florida for second place in the SEC East and trailing Kentucky by two games with 12 to play. LSU, which Kentucky beat 7-6 on Sunday to take the series, leads the SEC West at 12-6 and is in second place for the regular-season title.
A 1-5 start in the league to challenging for a second straight league title with four series to play. Did Tanner think this was possible?
"No," Tanner said. "That weekend in Lexington was a long way from where we are today."
"I think we're starting to find our team identity," said Erik Payne, who started at designated hitter and homered in his first at-bat. "We were kind of lost at the beginning of the year. Hopefully we're starting to put it together a little bit."
The Gamecocks won on Sunday by taking advantage of Auburn's holey gloves and the jet stream at Plainsman Park. Two Tiger errors in the first inning enabled one run to score and put two on for Payne. Payne got enough of a pitch to carry it toward the wall, and the ball may have hit the padding on top of the fence, but it still went over it.
Just like that, USC led 4-0 and could give Colby Holmes (6-0), susceptible to giving up a home run, room to work. Holmes struck out a career-high seven before leaving after the fifth (Creede Simpson mashed a two-out, two-run shot to chase him) and the Gamecocks kept pounding Auburn starter Daniel Koger.
The Tigers (21-19, 7-11) got within four runs but USC extended the lead. LB Dantzler cracked his second home run of the series in the seventh inning, the Gamecocks scored two more in the eighth and let the bullpen take it home.
Auburn made one last rally, chasing Evan Beal after three scoreless innings of relief, and scoring one run off Tyler Webb. Tanner, taking no chances, summoned Matt Price from the bullpen, even with a five-run lead; it proved fortuitous when Price gave up a run-scoring single but struck out Patrick Savage and Dan Glevenyak to end the game, when one swing from either could have tied the game.
"We needed every run we got," Tanner said.
USC has won eight straight in the league, four straight series and will take a few days off for exams before starting the Alabama series on Thursday. While there are still some concerns - USC's bullpen, despite being fully rested, had to go to its aces to finish what was an 11-7 game - the Gamecocks are on much more solid footing than they were after being swept by Kentucky.
The defense has tightened up, Joey Pankake locking down the shortstop position with Dantzler becoming a whiz at third. The starting rotation has settled in after Price began the year there, Forrest Koumas was hurt and Jordan Montgomery took over. The bats are beginning to boom, and the Gamecocks are taking advantage of mistakes - USC only had 11 hits, but the same number of runs on Sunday, while Auburn scored seven on 16 hits.
Tanner English had four hits and Dantzler had three. Payne drove in four runs.
"We pitched really well," Tanner said. "They can really hit. Auburn has an outstanding team offensively. No surprise to me that they were coming at us in the end.
"They came storming back and we hung on."
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