First baseman Christian Walker hit his ninth home run this season in a win over Liberty last week. That equals the total from his freshman season. Now let me tell you nine things I know about USC baseball.
1. I know the SEC East is as good as it gets in college baseball. USC, Vanderbilt and Florida are all tied at 17-4 with three regular-season series left to play. To put that in perspective, there’s not a single team in the SEC West with a winning conference record. It’s almost unreal that three of the top five teams in the nation – No. 2 South Carolina, No. 4 Vanderbilt and No. 5 Florida – reside in the same six-team division. None of them appear be showing any signs of backing down either after sweeping their respective weekend series. The Gamecocks hold a slight edge at this stage due to having won their series against the Gators and the Commodores. Those two square off May 13-15, which could bring the race into clearer focus. Until then, stay on the edge of your seats.
2. I know somebody must be sticking needles in Gamecock outfielder voodoo dolls somewhere. When freshman outfielder DeSean Anderson pulled up lame running to first base Sunday, I almost wanted to look around for the witch doctor. I laughed upon hearing the reaction of Adrian Morales afterward, “Are you serious? Another guy going down?” Yes, Anderson suffered a hamstring injury just like Adam Matthews. Jackie Bradley is out after surgery to repair the injured tendon in his wrist. Evan Marzilli experienced a rapid heartbeat that prompted a medical procedure Monday. Freshman Patrick Harrington never recovered enough from preseason injuries to be able to contribute this season. And Jake Williams didn’t get hurt, but he did have to endure a suspension. You’ve got to believe that outfielder/catcher Robert Beary and pitcher-turned-outfielder Steven Neff are looking over their shoulders. Coach Ray Tanner said Sunday that freshman third baseman Erik Payne may have to start taking balls in the outfield to provide some more depth.
3. I know Matt Price is the greatest closer in USC history. OK, he doesn’t have the most career saves yet. But that record of 30 by Rob Mosser is going to fall – Price has 23 as a redshirt sophomore as he moved into third place by himself on the list over the weekend – as long as Price stays healthy for the rest of this season. The hard-throwing right-hander helped pitch the Gamecocks to a national championship last season – winning the title game in relief – and he has picked up where he left off a year ago. He’s 4-2 with 13 saves, a 1.97 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 32 innings this season, and if you subtract the six earned runs in his one bad outing against Clemson, his ERA is 0.29. Enjoy him while you can. He could be gone to the professional ranks after this summer’s MLB draft.
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4. I know the Gamecocks like playing at home. They’re 26-3 at Carolina Stadium with six regular-season home games left to play. That’s a winning percentage of .897. Of course, it helps that they’re playing in front of vocal near-capacity crowds virtually every game. The average attendance of 7,409 – that’s tickets sold, not people in seats – gives them one of the best home-field advantages in college baseball.
5. I know Michael Roth is a winner, even when he doesn’t win. The junior left-hander got his first no-decision in 11 starts this season against Auburn. But he did everything he could to get a win. He allowed just one run on seven hits over eight innings, but he left the game in a 1-1 tie after throwing 124 pitches. The Gamecocks still won 2-1 in the ninth, but Roth did his part to hold Auburn at bay until they could push across the go-ahead run. He’s now 9-1 with a 1.24 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings, simply an incredible stat line at this late stage of the season.
6. I know Auburn must really want to quit playing South Carolina. The Gamecocks have won 12 consecutive regular-season series against the Tigers dating back to 1998. Over that period, USC has won a staggering 30 of the 39 meetings. The fact that Auburn has had a pretty solid baseball program over this time makes it even more incredible. There’s no logical explanation for the domination. Obviously, Tanner has elevated USC’s program to the highest level possible, but you still never expect that kind of success rate against any SEC team.
7. I know Robert Beary is a lot of fun to watch play. The senior from Apopka, Fla., is making an even bigger impact in his final season than he did in his first one after transferring from Pensacola JC. The versatile Beary, who plays both the outfield and catcher, is getting regular at-bats this season and proving to be as valuable at the plate as he is from a utility standpoint on the defensive side. He’s batting .284 with two homers and 23 RBIs while playing the game with an old-school style. He always hustles. He battles both at the plate and behind it. He runs the bases hard. He’s simply a competitor. Last season he didn’t play as much, but he did gain the distinction of scoring two of the biggest runs in USC history – the tying run in the 3-2 CWS extra-inning win over Oklahoma and the tying run in the 2-1 national championship victory.
8. I know pitching and defense wins games. OK, everybody knows that. But still, USC’s SEC-best .977 fielding percentage – just 38 errors in 43 games – and third-best ERA of 2.58 are both very impressive figures. USC pitchers have held opposing teams to a .218 batting average, a figure that also is aided by a lot of strong defensive play by the infield of Adrian Morales, Peter Mooney, Scott Wingo and Christian Walker. Just when you think an opponent is going to get a rally going, the pitchers get a big strikeout or the defenders turn what appears to be a hit into an out.
9. I know the last three weekends could set the tone for what happens in the postseason. The Gamecocks have played so well to this point that a letdown seems inevitable. But they’re playing with such confidence – even without Bradley and Matthews – that it wouldn’t be surprising if they keep this run going. Momentum is a funny thing in baseball. When things are going a team’s way, there’s a feeling that it can’t lose. And when a slump comes, there’s a feeling that it can’t win. But momentum can turn quickly, too. Last season’s Gamecocks lost four of their final five games before the NCAA tournament, where they won 11 of 12 to claim the national title. It’ll be interesting to see how this year’s team plays down the stretch.