NOLAN FONTANA had just delivered what proved to be a game-winning, two-run triple for Florida in the ninth inning of Saturdays game. Then he faced the TV cameras and was greeted from behind by a cloth full of shaving cream from teammate Karsten Whitson.
The nations No. 1-ranked team had every reason to soak in the series win over two-time defending national champion South Carolina, mostly because those kinds of celebrations normally are reserved for the Gamecocks at Carolina Stadium.
Only four times has USC lost a home series in this stadium. Unlike the losses to LSU and Arkansas in 2009 and to Florida in 2010, this series probably revealed a lot more about these two college baseball heavyweights.
One team improved to 22-2 overall and 5-1 in the SEC, and is playing in midseason form. The other dropped to 17-7, 1-5 in the league and is struggling to find its way with six losses in the past eight games.
Ray Tanner had a few minutes to sort things out and lend perspective following Saturdays 5-4 loss, a game in which USC managed five hits, got three innings out of starter Colby Holmes and saw normally reliable closer Matt Price surrender the game-winning runs in the ninth inning.
You dont feel terrible. I dont feel like we didnt have a chance, that were just not good enough, Tanner said. I dont feel any of those emotions. I feel like we had a chance to win. Im disappointed we didnt win today.
I have tremendous respect for Florida. Im not inferring that at all, but weve got to do a few more things in order to get it going. Are we as good as them on paper? No. But we had some opportunities here to win the series. You have to take a little bit away in a positive light, and thats all we can do right now.
The positives are there, you just have to do a little digging to find them. Lets address those first. Even after Saturdays loss, the pitching staffs earned run average stands at a sparkling 2.74. Infield defense, a concern early in the season, has improved to the point of respectability.
Michael Roth remains one of the top pitchers in the game with a 2-0 record and 1.28 ERA. Center fielder Evan Marzilli remains a rock, both with a bat and a glove in his hands. First baseman Christian Walker remains steady at the plate with a .314 average and 22 RBIs.
Those are the constants on a team that has been plagued by inconsistency, particularly with the bats. The nine-run outburst in Thursdays win over Florida was the exception. The six runs in the final two games of the series are much more the norm. In the six recent losses, USC has crossed home plate 19 times.
Weve shown glimpses of stuff here and there, hitting balls hard, getting runners on base when we need to, Walker said. Were just missing one element: Were just not getting runs across.
Complicating things, and probably stunting the growth of the team, was Tanners offseason decision to move Price into the starting rotation. The decision was admirable because it allowed Price to showcase himself to professional scouts as a starter.
Unfortunately, the move shook up the settled rotation Roth, Forrest Koumas and Holmes of a season ago. Then Koumas not only lost his spot as a starter, he also fell out of the closers role.
In the series opener on Thursday the 22nd game of the season Price came bounding out of the bullpen, sporting the same stern face and wicked slider that made him the nations best closer each of the past two seasons.
When he picked up the win after entering in a tie game, it looked to all Gamecock World as if the magic was back. Order had been restored. One-run losses, and there were four of them to that point, would be a nightmare of the past.
It is not that easy in baseball. Managers and head coaches do not flip a switch to solve problems. Even something as sure Matt Price can need a period of adjustment. Moving Koumas back to the rotation did not mean he would instantly return to his form of a season ago when he fashioned a 6-1 record and 2.96 ERA.
That is why this USC baseball team remains a work in progress.
We havent been a terrible team, Tanner said. We havent been a team that just has no chance. We just havent been able, the past couple of weeks, to come up with that big play or big hit and ended up on the wrong side of the ledger.
The truth of the matter is, a series win over Florida probably would have masked the problems that face this USC team. The loss amplified the areas where USC must improve to be a College World Series contender.
USC fans should take heart in knowing plenty of time remains in the regular season to right all the wrongs. Also, Ray Tanner remains in the dugout to wave his charmed wand.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)