The Gamecocks won their 10th consecutive weekend series by defeating Mississippi State two-of-three on the road. That pushed the team’s overall record to 31-8 on the season. Only eight losses? That’s pretty amazing considering the adversity that USC has had to overcome. Here are eight things I know about South Carolina baseball.
1. I know that Ray Tanner is learning what kind of depth that he has on the roster. With usual starting outfielders Jackie Bradley, Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews all out Sunday, the Gamecocks used Steven Neff, DeSean Anderson and Jake Williams out there and still won 13-4. Coming into the game, Neff and Anderson had a combined nine at-bats on the season between them. Although Neff went hitless, Anderson went 3-for-4, including a pair of doubles, on the day as part of USC’s 18-hit attack. Williams, who was playing again after a recent suspension, had four hits and two RBIs in the win. Now that’s what you call stepping up.
2. I know the SEC race is going to come down to the wire. USC, Vanderbilt and Florida are all 14-4 with four series left to play. The Gamecocks, however, hold the edge over both in case of a tie after defeating the Commodores and the Gators two-of-three games in those series. Florida and Vanderbilt have yet to play. In the latest Baseball America Top 25 poll, USC remained at No. 2 while No. 4 Vanderbilt (35-5) and No. 5 Florida (31-10) held their positions as well.
3. I know Christian Walker just keeps getting better and better. The weekend that he put together against the Bulldogs down in Starkville can only be described as amazing. The sophomore first baseman batted .909 (10-for-11) along with a sacrifice fly and four walks in 16 plate appearances. In the rubber game of the series, he collected four hits in four at-bats with a double, a home run and four RBIs. By the time his weekend was over, he had raised his batting average .042 points to .371. Walker is now tied for first in the SEC with 41 RBIs, second in slugging percentage at .623 and total bases with 94, third in batting average, runs scored (41) and home runs (8). Oh, and guess what else? He was named the SEC player of the week.
4. I know Tuesday’s game against Liberty is going to be a fun one. First of all, the game is set for 1 p.m. at Carolina Stadium. There’s nothing better than day baseball in my mind. The matchup also features the return of former USC assistant coach Jim Toman to Columbia. Toman assisted Tanner from 1997 to 2007, a period of great success for the Gamecocks. The two old friends now get to go head-to-head against each other for the first time, which should add an interesting twist to the day. The Flames enter with a record of 22-18. Toman played at N.C. State for Tanner, then an assistant coach, from 1981-84. Maybe the best thing of all about the day for the fans? Hot dogs are only going to cost a buck.
5. I know Jackie Bradley’s injury is going to test the Gamecocks in several ways. Even though Bradley has struggled recently at the plate, he remains their signature player. USC will miss his sparkling defense in center as well as his leadership on the field. His winning attitude and can-do presence give the Gamecocks a lot of their confidence, and it will be up to his teammates to carry on until he can return. When he does come back, he will have had a chance to clear his head and perhaps put his slump behind him.
6. I know the Gamecocks continue to get their fair share of exposure. The television games, whether they’re on ESPN2 or ESPN or SportSouth, have done a good job of showcasing Tanner’s top-of-the-line program. They also allow college baseball fans around the country to get a glimpse of what this team does well. Both shortstop Peter Mooney and second baseman Scott Wingo got the opportunity to display their impressive play-of-the-day defensive skills. Junior left-hander Michael Roth got to show what makes him such a gritty competitor. And Walker, of course, proved he was more than ready for prime time, just as he did in the College World Series last season.
7. I know the Gamecocks keep running into former Clemson assistant coaches. Next up this weekend? Auburn head coach John Pawlowski, who brings his team to Carolina Stadium this weekend for a three-game set. Can the Gamecocks win one more series against the Clemson connection? They defeated Jack Leggett’s Clemson team two-of-three in early March, then knocked off Florida, guided by former Clemson assistant Kevin O’Sullivan, two-of-three in late March, and last beat Vanderbilt, coached by former Clemson assistant Tim Corbin, two-of-three a couple of weeks ago. I’m also quite sure that Tanner would gladly take a two-of-three series win against Pawlowski’s Tigers.
8. I know more than the conference race is going to heat up. Real baseball weather is upon us, and it’s about to get toasty warm for the stretch run. So break out those T-shirts and shorts and get ready to enjoy the final four weeks of the regular season. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Gamecocks can maintain their torrid pace.