That’s nine straight series wins for the Gamecocks, with two of them coming over the No. 1 team in the nation. And here are nine more things I know about USC baseball.
I know Steven Neff can hit. He might be listed as a pitcher-only on the roster, but Neff remains one of the best all-around athletes on the team. Ray Tanner knows it, too, or else he wouldn’t have trotted Neff up to the plate five times against Vanderbilt over the weekend. Neff’s leadoff double got USC’s winning four-run rally started in Sunday’s 5-3 victory, and he could easily have had another double, but the ball he hit off the right-field wall was ruled a catch for Vandy’s Mike Yastrzemski. I have watched Neff, who still remains in the pitching mix as a hard-throwing left-hander, since he was a junior at Lancaster High, and he could always swing the bat. Two summers ago, he played for the Florence Red Wolves and blistered the ball in the wood-bat Coastal Plain League. If USC’s depth problems in the outfield continue, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get even more opportunities at the plate.
I know the College of Charleston would love to repeat what The Citadel did last week in Charleston. The Gamecocks travel to Patriots Point Field this time, and the Cougars will be waiting after suffering a 24-4 defeat in their meeting at Carolina Stadium a month ago. C of C coach Monte Lee, who served as an assistant to Ray Tanner for six seasons before leaving USC for Charleston after the 2008 season, was stung by his team’s poor pitching performance in the previous game. I have no doubt his team will do its best to find redemption. Both The Citadel and Furman defeated the Gamecocks with soft-tossing left-handers. Is there one just like that on the Cougars’ roster?
I know the polls don’t mean a lot in college baseball. While the fans may believe No. 2 USC deserves to be ranked No. 1 after its two huge series wins over Florida and Vanderbilt, the fact is that it simply doesn’t matter. Polls may make nice conversation pieces, but they don’t determine any team’s fate. There’s a 64-team tournament at the end of the season that takes care of which team is the best when it’s all said and done. Now the Gamecocks do want to stay somewhere in the Top 8 of the RPI because that likely would mean they’ll get a national seed for the NCAA tourney, which would lead to hosting a regional and Super Regional. Getting back to Omaha is a little easier if you don’t have to leave home to do it. If they keep winning games in the SEC at a similar rate, they’ll be just fine in that regard.
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I know Jackie Bradley will snap out of his slump and get on a roll again. While it’s disconcerting to see the career .358 hitter with a mere-mortal batting average of .278, he’s still the same player he was his first two seasons. Some of the difference can be attributed to the new bats, which don’t have the same pop as the old ones. Some balls Bradley used to hit over the heads of outfielders are being caught now. And it isn’t far-fetched to think that he’s feeling some performance pressure under the watchful eye of so many professional scouts as he tries to show them that he’s a first-round pick. His first two seasons, he had more walks than strikeouts, a ratio that’s reversed this season. Coach Ray Tanner moved him back into the leadoff spot, where he spent a lot of time his freshman season, to get him more relaxed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him find a home there and get his numbers moving up again.
I know Scott Wingo will go down in USC history as one of the program’s most beloved players. The senior second baseman is not only having a terrific season at the plate -- .330 BA, .464 OBP, 3 HR, 16 RBIs, only 13 strikeouts in 146 plate appearances -- but he’s also playing his usual stellar defense. He has made just three errors while making one spectacular play after another. A humble kid with a joyful positive attitude, Wingo is the ultimate team-first guy. It’s fitting that he scored the winning run in the national championship victory over UCLA last season. As he finishes his final season, he continues to put his stamp on a number of career categories, from hit-by-pitch to games played.
I know the Gamecocks are headed west. Halfway through the SEC schedule, they’ve finished their games against Eastern Division opponents and have five Western Division teams left to play: Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Alabama. At this stage, it appears the Gamecocks are in good shape due to having weathered a much stronger schedule. Four East teams have better conference records than all six of the West teams. But baseball can be funny that way. The Gamecocks may swing the bats better and still not match that first-half 12-3 mark. If they do, they’re likely looking at their first regular-season championship since 2002.
I know Vanderbilt is as good as advertised. The Commodores’ starting pitching, led by hard-throwing Sonny Gray, and closer Navery Moore can match up with any team in the country. Their lineup is rock-solid, led by Aaron Westlake and Jason Esposito in the middle of it. Esposito hit three homers over the weekend and flashed a terrific glove. Tanner said he looked like a first-rounder this summer. Hard to argue with that. It would not surprise me the least if Vanderbilt finished its season in Omaha for the first time in school history.
I know South Carolina’s pitching rotation could experience a few more changes over the final 21 regular-season games. Pitchers aren’t going to get a long leash if they struggle a few times in a row, especially on the weekends. Michael Roth is locked in on Fridays, but things could change on the other two days. Forrest Koumas gave up three solo homers Sunday, but he issued only one walk and kept South Carolina in the game. Colby Holmes, however, struggled in his Saturday start. If Neff’s arm feels fine, he will push his way back into the mix. And at some point, you have to believe that left-handers Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland will get their shots to help the team again. Patrick Sullivan, who has pitched well in limited opportunity, also might get a longer look. Potentially, the depth is there. But it’s going to come down to consistency when those chances come.
I know there’s nothing like a full house at Carolina Stadium on a sunny day. Sunday’s game against Vanderbilt was as good as it gets in college baseball shy of postseason play. The third straight sellout crowd got perfect weather to watch two of the best teams in the nation go at it. For baseball fans – and sports writers, too – it was a little slice of heaven. As Willie Stargell used to say, there’s a reason the umpire yells “Play ball!” and not “Work ball!”