That’s nine straight wins for the Gamecocks if you’re counting. And here are nine things I know about USC baseball.
I know junior left-hander Michael Roth is a joy to watch – whether he’s on the mound baffling hitters or in the dugout leading cheers. If there’s anyone who’s having as much fun as Roth in college baseball, I’d like to meet him, too. Roth is a great student, a great quote, a great jokester, and now he has become a great pitcher, as his 7-1 record and 1.25 ERA attests. But it’s the way his teammates follow his lead off the field that’s just as great, whether he’s getting the dugout and the fans into the game on Christian Walker’s “Fresh Prince” intro music or mugging for the ESPNU cameras after coming out of last Thursday’s 4-0 victory over Tennessee. Most pitchers after throwing 7 2/3 innings would have sat on the bench, exhaled, and quietly hoped their team held on. Not Roth. He’s mugging for the cameras, wishing his Mom a happy birthday, and leading the dugout dance on a big 2-2 count for closer Matt Price. He’s truly one of a kind.
I know the Vanderbilt pitchers are very good. Starters Sonny Gray (7-1, 1.54 ERA, Grayson Garvin (6-1, 2.04), Taylor Hill (2-0, 3.19) and closer Navery Moore (3-1, 0.48, 6 saves) can flat out pitch. The 5-foot-11 Gray, a right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and a devastatingly hard curve, might not be big, but he’s still expected to be a Top 10 pick in this summer’s Major League Baseball draft. Gray led Team USA with a 0.38 ERA last summer. It’s going to be a sensational matchup Friday night between him and Roth.
I know it’ll be great for USC fans to see Jim Toman back in Columbia. The Liberty head coach is bringing his Flames to Carolina Stadium for an April 26 afternoon game. Toman, of course, served as Tanner’s top assistant and recruiting coordinator for the Gamecocks from the 1997 season through the 2007 season. The fiery Toman has a relationship with Tanner that dates back to their days at N.C. State, where they both played and coached. Toman was always very popular here, especially as the third-base coach, and longtime Gamecocks fans should get a kick out of his return with his own Big South squad, which currently sports a 17-16 record. The game is a makeup for the March 9 rainout against Davidson. Those March 9 tickets will be honored against Liberty.
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I know junior left-hander Steven Neff must be ready to get back on the mound after missing the last three weekends with a sore bicep. He’ll draw the start against The Citadel Tuesday night at Riley Park in what will probably amount to a three- or four-inning stint. Neff (2-0, 2.49) had worked his way into the weekend rotation with some good outings before being scratched against Florida. Tanner is just as glad to have him back. If Neff comes back and throws well, Tanner will have even more choices for his rotation as the Gamecocks play the second half of the season.
I know sophomore first baseman Christian Walker can hit. Just past the midway point, he’s batting .352 with seven homers and 37 RBIs, all team highs. In addition, he has a .420 on-base percentage and a .630 slugging percentage. He hit a two-run homer in Friday’s 2-0 win over Tennessee and singled in the winning run in Saturday’s 2-1 victory. Everything he hits is hard-hit. He’s a line-drive machine. There’s no good way for pitchers to attack him because – unlike many guys with big-time power – he doesn’t chase pitches. He has struck out only 13 times in 138 plate appearances. Planted in the cleanup spot, he has anchored the lineup all season.
I know freshman right-hander Forrest Koumas and sophomore right-hander Colby Holmes have stepped up at the right time. With big outings over three straight weekends, they’ve given the Gamecocks a real boost in the rotation and shown just how much depth this staff has. Before the season, Wes Cook flunked out, Ethan Carter was kicked out and Nolan Belcher blew out his elbow. Then the season started and Tyler Webb struggled before getting a sore arm. Neff developed a sore arm, too. Adam Westmoreland can’t make his pitches consistently. So Koumas and Holmes, and to a lesser extent, Patrick Sullivan, stepped up to fill the void. Just like that, the Gamecocks keep cruising.
I know the game is just about over when closer Matt Price takes the mound with a lead. The redshirt sophomore right-hander is as close to a sure thing as there is in college baseball. OK, he gave up six runs in one outing against Clemson, as well as that solo homer to Florida, but in his 16 other appearances, opponents have combined for a grand total of nothing. Price, who saved all three games against Tennessee, now has 10 saves on the season to go with a 3-2 record and 2.82 ERA. He has six walks and 26 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings. With 20 career saves, he might just break the school record of 30 before this season is over. The best thing Ray Tanner did this season was leave him in the bullpen, where he can have an impact on far more games than he could have as a starting pitcher.
I know USC’s defense is going to help it win a whole lot of games before the season is done. With shortstop Peter Mooney and second baseman Scott Wingo, the Gamecocks are terrific up the middle, especially with center fielder Jackie Bradley playing behind them. Those three get to balls that many players on other teams don’t. Their play saves runs. Third baseman Adrian Morales and Walker at first also continue to perform well in the field. Morales has great reactions at the hot corner, and Walker gets better scooping throws and snagging hard shots every time he plays his position.
I know the eyes of college baseball are going to be focused on Columbia this weekend when top-ranked Vanderbilt comes to Carolina Stadium to play No. 3 USC. This is the biggest series of the season to date and might just determine which team ends up winning the SEC regular-season championship. I’m looking for a trio of low-scoring games and three loud sellout crowds. This is going to be a bunch of fun to watch.