Leading the SEC East after the first three conference series, South Carolina's baseball team stands ready to take another big leap.
Five of the remaining seven SEC series come against ranked opponents, starting at No. 20 Vanderbilt this weekend. Junior outfielder Whit Merrifield called games like these the reason the players came to USC.
"Every squad in the SEC is good, but this is the strength coming up," Merrifield said. "We don't feel like we're at the bottom of it, we feel like we're at the top. To be the best, you've got to beat the best. We're looking forward to going to Vanderbilt and playing well."
The No. 11 Gamecocks (23-6, 7-2 SEC East) have positioned themselves well heading into tonight's 7 p.m. game at Hawkins Field in Nashville. The Commodores (25-6, 5-4) are 20-1 at home.
USC coach Ray Tanner calls this the start of a wicked second-half stretch that will also include No. 15 Ole Miss, No. 24 Alabama, No. 10 Arkansas and No. 8 Florida.
"I know we have 21 games left in the league, and a lot can happen. They're all big," Tanner said. "We want to do well on the road. (Vanderbilt) wants to do well at home. They want to get back in the mix a little bit. There's always a lot at stake. That's why SEC baseball is what it is."
Any mention of the Commodores starts with their pitching. The rotation consists of three right-handers, Sonny Gray (4-3, 2.33 ERA), Jack Armstrong (4-0, 3.93) and Taylor Hill (3-2, 3.95), with righty Russell Brewer, who has not allowed a run in 16 innings while collecting four saves, is the closer. The team ERA is a league-best 3.11.
"Vandy's got arms. We found that out last year," senior first baseman Nick Ebert said. "But we're good hitters. It's going to be fun, and it's going to be three great games."
The Gamecocks swept the series last season in Columbia, although the Commodores won the matchup in the SEC tournament. USC counters with its own solid pitching this season. A staff headed by right-handers Blake Cooper (5-0, 3.11) and Sam Dyson (2-1, 4.79) has compiled a 3.46 ERA as well as the most strikeouts in the conference. Senior right-hander Jay Brown (1-0, 3.79) is expected to draw the Sunday start.
"Vanderbilt's a great team. We're looking to go up there and take two-of-three from them. We're facing some good arms, but we have some good arms," Merrifield said.
It's that kind of confidence that makes Tanner believe his team is ready for the upcoming challenge.
"I feel good about the guys we have. They're experienced and have been around the block a few times," Tanner said. "But it comes down to if you play well enough. That's more of a factor for me than anything. I don't worry about this group. I don't worry about guys with anxiety and nerves."
But Tanner also points out Vanderbilt is hitting .340 as a team with a veteran lineup of its own. The Gamecocks are hitting .305, with a host of players contributing in what has turned into a deep, versatile lineup. Merrifield, who is batting .350, leads the team with six homers and 22 RBIs, although 12 players have reached double figures in RBIs.
Merrifield expects the matchup to be revealing.
"Vanderbilt's got a good team up-and-down. They pitch it well. They swing it well," he said. "We've got a good challenge for us this weekend. It'll really show us where we are."
Ebert, who has improved his average to .262 after hitting homers in each of his past two games, loves this part of the season.
"Every SEC series is tough. The competition is so good. Now we're getting into the middle of the SEC," Ebert said. "The second half of the season is always tough, but we've just got to keep playing good ball like we've been and we'll be fine."