With three weekends down and one to go before SEC play begins, the South Carolina baseball team is right where it wanted to be.
The No. 6 Gamecocks enter the three-game series that begins Friday against Rider at Carolina Stadium sporting 10 wins in 12 games. They had losses to Liberty and Clemson while coming out on top in each of their series to date.
“If you had told me before the season we’d be 10-2 after 12 (games), I would have signed up. We’ve played some good teams, and we’ve found out a lot about our team,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “Even though we’re still going to be moving kids in and out (of the lineup) — there are more than nine kids that deserve to play — we’re finding out things about our team.”
In his first season as the head coach, he has guided his players to a good spot before they travel to Missouri in a week. After playing Rider this weekend, the Gamecocks have home games against USC Upstate and Davidson before embarking on SEC play.
They entered conference play with a 13-4 record in 2010, a 12-3 mark in 2011, and a 15-1 slate in 2012 so they must win their share of the next five to keep pace with those numbers.
“This is an important weekend for us against Rider, the last weekend before conference play. I like where our team is,” Holbrook said.
The team’s batting average has risen to .294 and its 7.3 runs per game were boosted by 10-0 and 14-4 midweek wins against Ball State. Senior first baseman LB Dantzler leads the offense with a .462 average, .600 on-base percentage, four homers, and 15 RBIs.
Senior captain Patrick Sullivan, the right-hander who picked up a relief win against Ball State, liked how the team didn’t let down against the Cardinals after the big series win against rival Clemson.
“I thought we came out with a lot of energy. Sometimes after a big series like that, you worry about that,” he said. “Everybody’s going in there real confident right now.”
Freshman second baseman Max Schrock, who’s second on the team with 11 RBIs and first with six stolen bases, had five hits in the two Ball State games to raise his average to .260 along with his confidence.
“That’s a big reason we’re succeeding right now. A lot of guys up there at the plate have confidence,” Schrock said.
The pitching has remained solid all season with a 2.21 team ERA, a .205 opposing-team batting average and 105 strikeouts in 106 innings. But the loss of ace left-hander Jordan Montgomery (3-0, 0.95 ERA) to an arm injury for two to three weeks will hurt. That will leave Holbrook searching for a new weekend starter in the short term, with sophomore right-handed reliever Evan Beal (0-0, 0.00) getting his first start of the season Friday and the second of his career.
But the pitching staff’s depth should help, especially as long as senior left-handers Nolan Belcher (2-1, 2.18 ERA) and Tyler Webb, the closer with three saves, continue to pitch as well as they have. Senior right-hander Colby Holmes (1-1, 3.71) will start Saturday with Belcher going Sunday.
Another injury that could affect the team in the short term is the one to center fielder Tanner English (.333). He left Wednesday’s game after aggravating a sore shoulder making a throw. After English got an MRI on Thursday, it remained uncertain if he would play this weekend. Right-fielder T.J. Costen would be the likely candidate to play center if English can’t go, with either Connor Bright or Sean Sullivan playing right.
The players understand they must deal with the injuries and keep pushing ahead. They have respect for Rider (6-1) and its coach, Barry Davis, who has taken the Broncs to the 2008 and 2010 NCAA tournaments.
“We’ve got to be ready to play. We can’t just come and throw our gloves out there,” Patrick Sullivan said. “We’ve got to compete and swing the bats well and keep throwing strikes. Hopefully, it will fall into place and we’ll keep playing well.”
Schrock is on board as well.
“We can’t take them lightly,” he said. “We’ve got to keep playing the way we’re playing right now.”
Baseball pregame: USC VS. RIDER
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Carolina Stadium
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5
SERIES: First meeting
RECORDS: USC 10-2; Rider 6-1
RANKINGS: USC is No. 6 in Baseball America
PITCHING MATCHUPS: Friday, USC RHP Evan Beal, Soph., 0-0, 0.00 vs. Rider LHP Tyler Smith, Sr., 1-0, 0.77; Saturday, USC RHP Colby Holmes, Sr., 1-1, 3.71 vs. Rider RHP Kurt Sowa, Soph.,2-0, 1.29; Sunday, USC LHP Nolan Belcher, Sr., 2-1, 2.18 vs. Rider RHP Mike Murphy, 1-1, 8.68
NOTES: 2B Max Schrock’s three stolen bases in Wednesday’s win against Ball State was the most in a game by a USC player since Davy Gregg stole three against Niagara in a 2005 game. Last weekend’s 8-0 win against Clemson was played in front of a sellout crowd of 8,242 fans at Carolina Stadium, the second sellout of the season. USC owns a 22-6 record in 28 career sellouts since Carolina Stadium opened in 2009. In Wednesday’s game against Ball State, senior closer Tyler Webb made his 84th career appearance, seventh on the school’s all-time list and 18 behind Matt Price’s record of 102. RHP Evan Beal pitched 22/3 innings of hitless, scoreless relief in his most recent outing 10 days ago against Furman.