South Carolina starts the SEC portion of its baseball schedule this weekend — against an unknown team.
The No. 5 Gamecocks travel to Missouri, one of the conference’s two new members, for a three-game series at Taylor Stadium. The programs never have met on the diamond.
USC coach Chad Holbrook said he doesn’t know much about the Tigers. He does know they won the Big 12 tournament championship last season to reach the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the regional to eventual national champion Arizona. And he knows their Friday night starter, junior left-hander Rob Zastryzny, has an excellent arm.
“We’ll certainly have our work cut out for us,” Holbrook said.
That same sentiment applies to the entire 30-game SEC schedule. The conference sports No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 6 Ole Miss, No. 7 LSU, No. 10 Kentucky, No. 13 Mississippi State, and No. 15 Arkansas. The Gamecocks (15-2) play all of them except Ole Miss.
“Each game is a 470-yard par four. It’s a war, it’s a battle,” Holbrook said. “It could go either way, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to play well.”
The past three USC teams, including two national champions, have navigated the difficult landscape by going 61-28 in SEC play.
“It’s a fun league to play in, and it’s fun because of the environments you play in and the strength of the competition,” Holbrook said. “I hope our guys will relish the opportunity in front of them. We’ve had a group of guys in the past here that have embraced the challenges, and I expect this group to do the same.”
First baseman LB Dantzler believes this team can handle what’s ahead. He experienced his first SEC season a year ago and said fellow starters such as third baseman Chase Vergason, shortstop Joey Pankake, catcher Grayson Greiner, and outfielder Tanner English did the same while making adjustments to the higher level of play.
“You have a lot more confidence and you know what to expect. I think that’s the biggest thing, honestly,” said Dantzler, who leads the team with a .429 average, six homers and 23 RBIs.
The Gamecocks have played well in winning seven consecutive games. That streak included midweek wins against USC Upstate and Davidson in which USC combined for 24 runs on 27 hits, including six doubles, two triples and two homers. Those efforts raised the team batting average to .305.
“The whole year we knew we had it in us,” Dantzler said. “We got off to a little slow start, maybe (had) some nerves. It’s good going into the SEC swinging the bats well.”
Combine that with a pitching staff that carries a 2.15 ERA and has limited opposing teams to a .209 average — USC has outscored its opponents 124-45 in 17 games — and Dantzler sees another competitive SEC team, perhaps better than the one that rebounded from a 1-5 start in the conference last season to go 18-11.
“I think we’re better offensively, and our pitching staff is phenomenal as well. We have a chance,” he said.
USC vs. Missouri
WHEN: Today, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
WHERE: Taylor Stadium, Columbia, Mo.
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5 TELEVISION: None
SERIES: First meeting RECORDS: USC 15-2; Missouri 5-7
RANKINGS: USC is No. 5 in Baseball America
PITCHING MATCHUPS: Friday, USC RHP Evan Beal, Soph., 1-0, 0.00 vs. Missouri LHP Rob Zastryzny, Jr., 1-2, 4.58; Saturday, USC LHP Nolan Belcher, Sr., 3-1, 1.63 vs. Missouri RHP Brett Graves, Soph., 0-1, 3.24; Sunday, USC RHP Colby Holmes, Sr., 1-1, 4.22 vs. Missouri TBA
NOTES: USC players have posted remarkable numbers this season. P Nolan Belcher has struck out 30 batters while walking one in 272/3 innings. 1B LB Dantzler has a .547 on-base percentage and a .839 slugging percentage for a 1.386 OPS. P Tyler Webb hasn’t allowed a run in eight appearances while posting five saves and 15 strikeouts in 91/3 innings. Six regulars in the batting order have more walks than strikeouts: Dantzler (14-11), SS Joey Pankake (10-5), 3B Chase Vergason (11-7), CF Tanner English (11-8), LF Graham Saiko (14-4) and 2B Max Schrock (12-5).
Heading into the SEC opener tonight at Missouri, the USC pitching staff has been phenomenal. The team ERA is 2.15 and four players have 0.00 ERAs. A look at the Gamecocks’ top pitchers with a minimum of 9 innings thrown.
Innings pitched: 9.2
BA against: .121
Innings pitched: 9.1
BA against: .167
Innings pitched: 14.0
BA against: .220
Innings pitched: 11.0
BA against: .171
Innings pitched: 19.0
BA against: .188
Innings pitched: 27.2
BA against: .215
*Out with an injury