After South Carolina (23-9, 5-7 SEC) dropped five of six games in its first two SEC series, dark clouds hung over the program.
Today, there's a little sunshine peeking through.
Bouncing back from a frustrating loss on Friday in which the winning run scored in the top of the ninth inning on an entirely preventable throwing error, USC responded with back-to-back wins on Saturday and Sunday over divisional rival Tennessee to capture its second straight SEC series.
While USC is still two games below the .500 mark, it's regained most of the momentum lost in the wake of the series setbacks to Kentucky and Florida to open the SEC slate.
"I'm really proud of our guys," coach Ray Tanner said on Sunday, following a 6-1 series-clinching victory over the Vols. "It's been a battle for us. We dug ourselves a hole, but it's our fault. After losing a tough Friday night game, it's very difficult to win the Saturday and Sunday games. I'm glad we're playing better and winning some games."
Most of the credit for this weekend's success over the Vols should be given to the Gamecock hurlers, especially the starting trio of Michael Roth (6 1-3 innings, six hits, three runs), Jordan Montgomery (eight innings, three hits, one run) and Colby Holmes (seven innings, four hits, one run).
Together, those three pitchers combined to hold Tennessee to five runs on 13 hits with 16 strikeouts and no walks in 21 1-3 innings. Each of the three starters lasted into the seventh inning, which gave USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers the freedom to call upon whom he wanted in relief without fear of taxing the bullpen.
"Our starting pitching was really good the last two days," Tanner said. "The fact they didn't issue a walk will by itself give you an opportunity to win if you catch it. We didn't get a lot of hits (19 in the three games) and neither did they. I'm optimistic we're going to get a little bit better offensively as we go. We have some guys with the ability to hit."
Overall, four USC pitchers issued just two walks while surrendering a meager seven hits in the final two games.
Montgomery, a freshman from Sumter, turned his SEC starting debut into a memorable occasion by lasting eight innings, retiring 12 straight hitters in one stretch. He didn't walk a batter and fanned a season and career-high seven.
He received a no-decision, though, because USC won the game in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off single by LB Dantzler. Montgomery lowered his ERA to 2.70 in 30 innings. Opponents are batting just .204 against him. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (27 strikeouts, 2two walks) is a phenomenal 13.5-to-1.
On Sunday, Holmes carried a shutout into the seventh innings until allowing a solo homer for Tennessee's only run of the afternoon. He tied a season-high with six strikeouts in recording his team-high fourth win (against no losses) of the season.
The last time Holmes lasted seven innings was May 15, 2011, when he hurled 8 2-3 innings against Arkansas. It was the fourth time in 27 career starts that Holmes has gone at least seven innings. His career record is a sparkling 13-3.
"As excited as I was (Saturday) by Jordan Montgomery's start, I was equally happy (Sunday) for Colby," Tanner said. "Colby is a fighter. He'll battle for you. There have been a lot of situations where he's gone four or five innings and we've taken him out because we have guys in the bullpen we have a lot of confidence in. He seemed a lot more comfortable (on Sunday) so we stretched it out. His pitch count was good (90). That was important for us. It was nice to see Colby stretch it out a little bit. We feel pretty good about the rubber game with him out there."
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Jordan Montgomery
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 3-1
OVERALL RECORD: 23-9 (5-7 SEC)
LAST WEEK'S RESULTS
April 4 at College of Charleston, W 7-0
April 6 vs. Tennessee, L 5-4
April 7 vs. Tennessee, W 2-1
April 8 vs. Tennessee, W 6-1
HALFWAY MARK IN SEC PLAY: The Gamecocks reach the midway point of the 2012 SEC schedule this weekend when they host Mississippi State in a three-game SEC series. However, before USC gets ready to face the Bulldogs, they must deal with The Citadel (Tuesuday at home) and Francis Marion (Wednesday in Florence) in non-conference play. The Gamecocks are helping FMU christen a new ballpark.
Adam Westmoreland or Nolan Belcher is expected to get the starting nod on Tuesday when USC faces The Citadel for the second time this season. USC downed the Bulldogs 7-3 on March 27 in Charleston. Westmoreland combined with relievers Tyler Webb and Belcher to blank College of Charleston 7-0 on four hits last week. Westmoreland is 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA in 18 2-3 innings, while Belcher is 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA in 12 innings.
The following night, USC will play in Florence. Freshman Joel Seddon or Belcher are the likely candidates to start against FMU.
This weekend's three-game home battle with Mississippi State features a match-up of a pair of 5-7 teams trying to keep their heads above water. The importance of the series is shown by the conference standings - eight SEC schools have five (USC, Georgia, Mississippi State), six (Tennessee, Auburn, Ole Miss) or seven (Florida, Arkansas) wins.
With the standings so tight, the Gamecocks have a good chance of climbing the conference ladder, should they pull out a third consecutive series win over Mississippi State.
"We knew after the Kentucky weekend that we were playing uphill," Tanner said. "And we're still playing uphill. We've won the last two series and that's encouraging. It's not going to get any easier. But we're hanging in there. Some other people are coming back to us a little bit as well. It's a great conference. (Tennessee coach Dave Serrano) and I were talking before the game and he said 16-14 or 15-15 might win the East. I told him that it's happened before."
THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE:
April 10 vs. The Citadel, 7 p.m.
April 11 at Francis Marion, 7 p.m.
April 13 vs. Mississippi State, 7 p.m.
April 14 vs. Mississippi State, 4 p.m.
April 15 vs. Mississippi State, 1:30 p.m.
* The SEC honored Roth as the 2011-12 H. Boyd McWhorter Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Roth will receive a $15,000 post-graduate scholarship. Roth leads the SEC in innings pitched (54 2-3 innings), while opponents are hitting just .174 against him, the second-best mark in the conference. His 1.98 ERA is the sixth-best in the league. Roth has 47 strikeouts compared to 11 walks.
* Matt Price leads the SEC in opposing batting average (.158), while his 51 strikeouts in 43 innings is sixth-best in the SEC. He is 3-3 for the year with a 3.14 ERA.
* Senior Adam Matthews was 4-for-9 (.444) with a double and two RBI in the Tennessee series. Matthews leads the Gamecocks in conference games with a .308 average, four runs scored and four RBI in 12 SEC contests (12-for-39). Matthews batted in the No. 2 spot in all three games against Tennessee and had a key squeeze bunt in Sunday's game.
* Evan Marzilli's streak of 31 consecutive games reaching base was snapped on Sunday when he went 0-for-3 with an RBI on a sacrifice fly. Marzilli leads USC with eight doubles and six stolen bases.
* After a slow start and sitting on the bench for about two weeks, freshman Joey Pankake has started the last 15 games at shortstop. Pankake is hitting .316 (30-for-95) with 24 runs scored, two homers and 10 RBIs for the season.
* USC is hitting .274 (295-for-1076) for the season with a .362 on-base percentage and .396 slugging percentage. The Gamecocks rank second in the SEC with a 2.87 ERA and 292 strikeouts in 291 2-3 innings pitched to just 96 walks. Opponents are hitting .195 against the USC staff, the top mark in the conference.
* USC's .977 fielding percentage is tied with two other schools for second in the league.
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