No stars, no problem for USC

04/20/2010 12:00 AM

04/20/2010 12:06 AM

Halfway through the SEC season, one thing is clear about the USC baseball team:

Coach Ray Tanner doesn't have a big collection of stars, like he has in previous seasons, but he does have a lot of good players. And they're showing that it doesn't take a lineup full of marquee names to win games.

What the Gamecocks lack in star power, they make up for with their intensity and tenacity. Players also have been selfless enough to fill roles and find ways to contribute even if they know they're not going to be in the lineup every day.

Two numbers best illustrate this depth: Twelve position players have double-digit RBI totals, and 14 pitchers have recorded at least one decision. That's with 20 regular-season games - 15 in the SEC - remaining.

The result? An overall record of 28-8 and a conference mark of 11-4, which has the Gamecocks leading the SEC East by a game over Florida (25-10, 10-5). That also puts the team in the mix with SEC West leader Arkansas (31-6, 12-3) and LSU (30-6, 11-4) for the overall conference title.

USC's series victory against Mississippi this past weekend was its fifth in a row to start the conference season - something no other USC team has done and something no other SEC team did this season.

"If we could have signed up for where we are, would we take it? Absolutely," Tanner said.

Only senior right-hander Blake Cooper has produced the kind of numbers that snag headlines. With his complete-game, four-hit shutout of Ole Miss on Friday, which earned him SEC Pitcher of the Week honors, Cooper improved to a league-best 7-0 while lowering his ERA to 2.44. More importantly, he has embraced the Friday night role by winning the opening game in each of four consecutive SEC series.

But there are many other things that have happened to put the Gamecocks in position to win their first SEC East title since 2003 and first overall regular-season title since 2002:

- The hard-nosed play of Whit Merrifield, who triggers the offense from the leadoff spot and plays the game all-out.

- Third baseman Adrian Morales' clutch hitting has made him the team leader in RBIs.

- The team-high eight home runs by No. 9 hitter Scott Wingo, who is showing there is more to his game than a flashy glove.

- The platoons are working, whether it's lefty batters Brady Thomas and Jeffery Jones getting the big hits one day or righties Nick Ebert, Parker Bangs and Christian Walker the next.

- The bullpen quartet of right-handers Matt Price, Ethan Carter and Jose Mata and left-hander Michael Roth has allowed USC to compile a 24-1 record when entering the seventh inning with a lead.

Expectations were high for the Gamecocks entering the season, and while they lost early series to Clemson and East Carolina, they rebounded in a resounding fashion - although in a much different way than the power-hitting teams of years past.

With SEC series remaining against Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, No. 9 Arkansas and No. 7 Florida, there is no reason to believe the Gamecocks will falter. That especially will be the case if center fielder Jackie Bradley can regain the form at the plate he showed last season and the start of this one, and if Saturday starter Sam Dyson can display consistency to go with the electric arm that pro scouts love.

Tanner also hopes slick-fielding senior shortstop Bobby Haney can find his hitting stroke. His defense continues to keep him in the lineup, but his struggles - a .200 average with three extra-base hits in 95 at-bats - have become noticeable in key situations.

Still, it's hard to find fault with a team that keeps winning.

"We've won 11 (SEC) games and won all the series," Tanner said. "We've done some good things. Looking at the big picture, we've done OK."

It's a picture he would love to duplicate during the second half of the SEC season. Especially the way his team has done it.

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