USC coach Ray Tanner has a lot of different buttons to push when he is filling out his lineup card this season. So far, he keeps pushing the right ones.
Three players who did not start the first two games of the series against Mississippi State — designated hitter Parker Bangs, first baseman Nick Ebert and third baseman Adrian Morales — started Sunday, and all three responded with home runs in a 14-2 victory at Carolina Stadium.
The three players combined for four hits, four walks and eight RBIs as the No. 12 Gamecocks (22-6, 7-2 SEC) won their third consecutive conference series to take over first place in the Eastern Division.
Tanner doesn’t take credit for making the decisions that work, noting that he agonizes for hours while poring over statistics to make his lineup choices.
“We’ve been wrestling with it daily,” Tanner said. “We’ve just got to plug them into situations they’ll be productive.”
Tanner said seeing Ebert, who has struggled with a .241 average and one home run after hitting 23 last season, hit a home run in his first at-bat was especially gratifying.
“I probably felt as good as he did, and I didn’t hit it,” Tanner said.
The two-run homer erased a 1-0 deficit and jump-started the USC’s big day.
“I’m a first-pitch hitter if you throw it over the plate. I’m swinging,” Ebert said. “He threw me a first-pitch fastball, and I drilled it.”
But Tanner also knows what first baseman Jeffery Jones and designated hitter/catcher Brady Thomas have done in their opportunities. In the first two games of the series, they combined for nine hits and eight RBIs, but they didn’t play Sunday.
Tanner knows he’ll need Ebert in the season’s second half, as well as Bangs, who hit a three-run homer in the fourth, and Morales, who had a two-run double in the third and a solo homer in the fourth. He especially likes the leadership Morales provides.
“Our team is better with him on the field,” Tanner said.
Ebert concedes the choices available to Tanner will make it difficult for him to regain his full-time role.
“We have so many guys hitting the ball. It’s hard for anybody to make out the lineup for this team,” said Ebert. “That’s a good problem to have. We have faith in anybody he puts in the lineup.”
Tanner also chose the right guy to come out of the bullpen when starter Jay Brown wasn’t sharp in his three innings of work. Right-hander Matt Price (3-0) came in to start the fourth and tossed five shutout innings to get the win as the Gamecocks pulled away from the Bulldogs (15-13, 3-6). Price, who allowed two hits and struck out six, lowered his ERA to 1.40 on the season.
Price entered with the game tied at 2-2 and knew what he had to do.
“You have to get outs and keep your team in a situation where we can win,” he said. “That’s the main thing.”
Winning is something the Gamecocks continue to do. They have won 16 of their past 18 games and have taken charge in the division as they head to Vanderbilt next week. Tanner said it was important to win all three conference series because two of them came at home.
“You have to defend your home turf,” he said.
“You have to be happy with where you are at this point. (But) it’s going to get tougher down the backstretch.”
The players know the strong start gives them something to build on.
“This is exactly where we wanted to be,” Morales said. “Seven-and-two is pretty good in the SEC.”
Ebert said those numbers are more important than the ones of any individual.
“We’re winning. That’s all I care about,” he said.