One week after being swept in an important SEC series by Florida, the USC baseball team would like nothing more than to do the same to Vanderbilt.
After Saturday’s resounding 14-5 victory against the Commodores at Carolina Stadium, the Gamecocks are poised to claim their first conference sweep of the season.
Just as important, the victory allowed USC (29-18, 11-12 SEC) to move past Vanderbilt (27-19, 10-12) into third place in the SEC East and seventh in the overall league standings with two league series remaining. The top eight teams qualify for the conference tournament in Hoover, Ala., May 20-24.
“You hope as a coach, no matter what happens, your guys will come back,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “You’re going to have some adversity. Things didn’t go well in Gainesville. These guys have scrapped the last two nights. I want to come out and have a great game (Sunday).”
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The series concludes with a 1:30 p.m. game today. USC right-hander Blake Cooper (5-4, 5.50 ERA) is expected to face Vanderbilt righty Caleb Cotham (5-4, 4.84). The win also clinched the first series victory against Vanderbilt since 2004.
Junior outfielder DeAngelo Mack led the 16-hit attack with a career-high four hits, including two home runs that boosted his season total to 13. It was his second two-homer game of the season, and the big night lifted his team-high batting average to .372. Mack’s two homers helped stake his team to an 11-1 lead after four innings.
“When you’re up 10, everything is going right and you feel great. When you’re down 10, everything feels wrong,” said Mack, who didn’t have to look too far back to know how that felt.
“It’s real big for us. Last weekend is one we’re trying to forget about, and tomorrow we get to make up for it.”
Nick Ebert went 2-for-2 with four RBIs, which included a towering two-run homer, an RBI single and a sacrifice fly. That boosted his team-leading totals to 17 home runs — one in both games of the series — and 55 RBIs. Jackie Bradley also collected three hits for the second consecutive night.
“We’re seeing the ball real good as a team. We’re hitting everything they’re throwing at us,” Ebert said.
Freshman lefty Nolan Belcher (3-3) did his part on the mound. Although he gave up five runs, four of them on three Vandy home runs, he pitched effectively for 7 Ð innings. He walked three and struck out five to give the Gamecocks their second straight solid outing. Tanner liked Belcher’s perseverance on the mound despite not having his best stuff.
“He’ll fight for you, and he got deep into the game because of that,” Tanner said.
The only other time this season USC won the first two games of an SEC series came on the road against Mississippi three weeks ago, but the Rebels won on Sunday to avoid the sweep. Belcher said the Gamecocks aren’t going to be satisfied this time.
“We’ve got these two wins, but we’ve got to look past that now and look for tomorrow. Every game is big now,” he said.
The players are convinced they can carry this momentum forward.
“We’ve got to take care of business on the field,” Ebert said. “If we can do that, everything will work out for us.”
Those are the words Tanner wants to hear.
“These guys want to play,” he said. “They don’t want their season to end early.”
The Gamecocks busted the game open early with six runs in the third off Vandy starter Drew Hayes (4-3) to take a 7-1 lead. Scott Wingo opened the inning with a double, and Mack followed with a one-out double to set the stage for the big inning.
The runs came quickly on Bradley’s RBI single, Ebert’s RBI single, Andrew Crisp’s RBI groundout, Jeffery Jones’ two-run single and Bobby Haney’s run-scoring double. Vanderbilt’s bullpen never stirred, though, as 10 USC hitters came to the plate.
Hayes’ night didn’t end until Whit Merrifield and Mack hit back-to-back homers to lead off the fourth and push the lead to 9-1. Merrifield’s homer was his ninth, while Mack’s was his second of the game and 13th of the season.
Vanderbilt scored a run in the first inning off Belcher without the benefit of a hit — thanks to a walk, a hit batsman, a double-play groundout and a wild pitch. The Gamecocks got the run back, however, when Mack drilled a solo homer into the USC bullpen in the bottom of the first. The blast came after Merrifield, who walked to lead off the inning, was picked off first by Hayes.