South Carolina’s season was always going to be judged on what happens in the NCAA Tournament. That hasn’t changed.
What has changed is USC’s path to having a successful postseason run.
The Gamecocks were in everybody’s preseason top 5, but with four SEC series remaining, they are unranked by Baseball America and D1Baseball, the two major polls in the sport.
Barring a bad collapse down the stretch, USC should be in the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks have a top 25 RPI and a pitching staff that remains one of the best in the SEC.
But barring an incredible run the final few weeks of the season, the Gamecocks will not be hosting the NCAA Tournament at Founders Park.
South Carolina will likely have to win several postseason games away from home to reach its goal of returning to the College World Series for the first time since 2012.
As of last week, D1Baseball and Baseball America had USC as a No. 2 seed in a regional at Wake Forest.
If that projection holds true, the Gamecocks will have to survive a four-team regional in Winston-Salem before likely facing off against a top eight national seed on the road.
South Carolina is capable of winning games and going on a run in the NCAA Tournament. In a lot of ways, this team is built for postseason success.
USC has three strong starting pitchers in Clarke Schimdt, Wil Crowe and Adam Hill and a lights out closer in Tyler Johnson. The Gamecocks have also played strong defense for much of the season, and pitching and defense can take you far in the postseason.
But the Gamecocks are also a team that appears to be fragile after losing another series in heartbreaking fashion over the weekend.
South Carolina has dropped five series this season, including four against teams currently ranked in the D1Baseball top 10. USC has series losses to No. 3 Clemson, No. 7 Auburn, No. 9 Florida and No. 10 Mississippi State.
In the matchups with Clemson and Auburn, South Carolina had a lead in the rubber match of the series with two outs in the ninth before giving up home runs.
Against Florida, South Carolina led 5-3 in the rubber match in the eighth before giving up a grand slam.
Against Mississippi State, the Gamecocks allowed five unearned runs in a 7-4 loss to open the series and blew a seventh-inning lead a day later before earning a win in Game 3.
In USC’s other series loss, at home against Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks led with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2 before blowing the lead and dropping the series 2-1.
You can argue that South Carolina has outplayed its opponent in each of the past four SEC series. The Gamecocks have no series wins during that time to show for it.
USC’s biggest issue has been blowing late leads.
Entering this season, South Carolina was 321-6 the past eight years when leading after the eighth inning. In 2017, the Gamecocks are 23-3. USC did not lose a game more than once when leading after the eighth inning from 2009-2016, and twice during that stretch did not lose a game the entire year when leading after the eighth inning.
To be fair, South Carolina did not have its closer available in any of the three such losses this season. If Johnson would have been available and closed out the games, and USC had two more wins right now, it would also have two more series wins against strong opponents.
In that case, the Gamecocks would either own a series win over Clemson and would be 10-8 in the SEC, or USC would be 11-7 in the SEC entering this weekend and getting ready to play Kentucky for control of the SEC East.
Has South Carolina been hurt by bad luck and injuries that will eventually even out and allow the Gamecocks to go on a run? Or is this another disappointing season under coach Chad Holbrook that will end well short of expectations?
It’s too early to judge right now. We will find out in June.