A year ago at this time, the South Carolina baseball team was coming off its first SEC series loss of the season — at Kentucky in the eighth week of conference play.
Fast-forward to this past weekend, when history repeated itself. USC won seven straight conference series before losing on the road, at Mississippi. Just as they did last season, the Gamecocks won the opener before dropping the next two, including a one-run loss on Sunday.
The Kentucky series last season proved to be a blip — just as a regular-season-ending series loss to Florida and a two-and-out performance in the SEC tournament were — on the way to a national championship.
So there’s no need to be overly concerned about USC (37-10), which slipped two spots to No. 4 in the Baseball America poll. Winning all 10 series in a conference as tough as the SEC is a near-impossible task, and an 18-6 league mark still glitters — as any team in the SEC West would tell you.
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But there are issues that could continue to create problems for the Gamecocks. Injuries have carved the team’s outfield depth to critical levels. Not many teams could lose their top two outfielders for an extended period and keep winning. Until the Ole Miss series, the Gamecocks had done just that. It doesn’t appear Jackie Bradley and Adam Matthews are going to be factors the final two weekends of the regular season.
The other issue involves maintaining consistency among the starting pitchers. In the two Ole Miss losses, the starters didn’t make it past the third inning, which stretched the bullpen. Sophomore Colby Holmes and freshman Forrest Koumas have shown flashes of brilliance since entering the weekend rotation, but coach Ray Tanner puts value on consistentcy.
He also likes players who have — as he likes to say — earned their stripes, which could lead him to tinker with the rotation. Steven Neff, Adam Westmoreland or Tyler Webb could find themselves back in the mix, especially since all three were in the rotation earlier in the season.
With five games this week — midweek contests against Presbyterian and Charleston Southern and a home SEC series against West co-leader Arkansas — pitching will be at a premium. The Gamecocks will need to win Tuesday and Wednesday without burning too much of the bullpen heading into a weekend that could go a long way in determining the SEC regular-season champion. Third-ranked and first-place Vanderbilt (40-6, 19-5 SEC) plays host to No. 8 Florida (36-12, 18-6) in an East showdown.
If the Gamecocks bounce back and win each of their final two series — the last one will be on the road against the other co-leader in the West, Alabama (30-20, 12-12) — and make a deep run in the conference tournament, they should be in position to earn a top-eight national seed for the NCAA tournament, which would ensure the right to host a regional and Super Regional.
The Gamecocks will learn soon enough if the series loss to the Rebels ends up being a blip or cause for concern.