The South Carolina baseball team’s final tuneup before the last leg of the SEC race went off without a hitch, although it took the Gamecocks seven innings to get their motor cranked up.
Using a nine-run seventh, USC pulled away from Furman for an 11-6 victory Tuesday night at Carolina Stadium. In the process, the No. 6 Gamecocks (42-11) ran their midweek record to 14-0 as they enter their conference showdown with No. 4 Florida (38-12).
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USC and the Gators are tied atop the SEC Eastern Division as well as the overall league standings with 20-7 records. The two play for the title Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Carolina Stadium. USC coach Ray Tanner was glad to see his team not stumble before the big series. The victory ensured the Gamecocks would finish with a perfect midweek record for the first time in the era that dates back to 1970.
“These guys have done a great job,” Tanner said. “They’ve played their rear ends off all year long.”
The Gamecocks wanted to keep this season on track as it relates to the SEC race and NCAA tournament positioning.
“These guys know what’s going on. They pay attention,” Tanner said. “They know what’s at stake. They’re excited about it, and I know Florida’s excited about it.”
After a couple of early base-running mistakes helped kill rallies, South Carolina blew open a 2-2 game with nine runs in the seventh inning, capped by Bobby Haney’s grand slam. Haney and Whit Merrifield each had two hits in that inning, which saw 10 consecutive USC batters reach base off three Furman pitchers. Christian Walker had a two-run single to get the rally rolling, and Robert Beary and Brady Thomas added RBI singles.
“That was big for us – undefeated in midweek – it’s awesome,” said Haney, who had three hits to raise his average to .245. “This is a big weekend for us.”
Outfielder Jackie Bradley agreed.
“It’s a great accomplishment to win every midweek game on the year,” Bradley said. “We had to stay focused for that.”
Now the team officially can turn its focus to the Gators.
“This is a big series. It’s for all the marbles. We’ve got to go out there and go for it,” Bradley said.
The Gamecocks will be trying to win their first regular-season SEC title since 2002.
“I feel like, aside from the national championship, the SEC is the hardest thing to win,” Merrifield said.
He points out an SEC title would help secure a national seed in the NCAA tournament, which would ensure games at Carolina Stadium.
“We always want to play at home. To play at home (in the playoffs), we have to win this weekend,” he said.
The Gamecocks broke the scoreless tie in the third inning with four consecutive singles off Furman starter Barry Benton, with Merrifield and Bradley getting the RBIs for a 2-0 lead. The left-handed Benton, who entered with a 10.16 ERA, didn’t allow a hit during the first 2 1/3 innings until Haney got the first rally started.
“Barry Benton pitched a great game,” Tanner said.
The Paladins (16-34) got both runs back in the fourth when Reese Wade drilled a home run into the right-field bullpen off reliever Jose Mata, who gave up a single to Brian Harrison in front of the home run.
Steven Neff, one of seven USC pitchers, pitched an inning of scoreless relief in the seventh to get the win and run his record to 2-1.
South Carolina 11, Furman 6