Two weeks ago, the South Carolina baseball team was coming off a disappointing sweep at the hands of Arkansas and staring up at a majority of their SEC opponents in the standings.
Coach Chad Holbrook, however, declined to push the big red panic button in his new office. He understood that a 30-game conference schedule allows for a number of ups-and-downs until the middle of May rolls around.
He remained confident that better days were around the corner for his Gamecocks, who rewarded that confidence with back-to-back sweeps against Texas A&M at home and Tennessee on the road.
The Gamecocks (26-7) have climbed back up to No. 11 in the Baseball America Top 25 and to 8-4 in the SEC, a mark that leaves them trailing only No. 2 Vanderbilt (29-4, 11-1 SEC) and No. 3 LSU (30-2, 11-1 SEC) in the conference standings (No. 10 Arkansas and Alabama also are 8-4).
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Two things jump out for the Gamecocks about their jaunt to Knoxville. Ace left-hander Jordan Montgomery returned to the mound for the first time in a month after being sidelined by a stress reaction in his arm. Although he was limited to four innings in Sunday’s start, he allowed no runs on four hits and no walks. His numbers continue to sparkle at 3-0 with a 0.78 ERA over 23 innings.
Montgomery’s return gives the Gamecocks a dominating group of left-handers, which also includes three seniors in starter Nolan Belcher, middle man Adam Westmoreland and closer Tyler Webb. Through 140 innings, the four have combined for a 13-3 record with 13 saves, a 1.29 ERA, and 146 strikeouts.
The other piece of good news on the weekend involved the team’s hitting. USC scored 36 runs on 45 hits in three games and watched its batting average improve 12 points to .282. The Gamecocks had averaged three runs on six hits in the nine SEC contests entering this series. Although the outburst came against the league’s worst pitching staff, Holbrook will take it.
The Gamecocks also welcomed back center fielder Tanner English — whose play on the offensive and defensive sides are essential to continued success — after he took off a couple of games to rest his sore right shoulder. He leads the team with a .451 on-base percentage, and his ability to track down fly balls improves the outfield defense.
There were other pockets of sunshine as well. Senior right-hander Colby Holmes threw well in relief Sunday and looked ready to reclaim his role in the weekend rotation, especially after sophomore right-hander Evan Beal struggled for the third straight start.
Junior Brison Celek stepped in last week as the primary designated hitter and made his case for staying there with a strong performance at the plate. He showed power and patience in a spot that has featured nine starters this season.
And freshman second baseman Max Schrock showed that he may be ready to break out offensively.
But all of those positive developments should be placed in the broader context of the schedule. The toughest part of conference play is ahead of the Gamecocks, who still must face No. 13 Kentucky, No. 3 LSU, No. 2 Vanderbilt and No. 21 Mississippi State in four of the remaining six SEC series. They get Vandy and Kentucky at home.
That’s why playing in the SEC keeps coaches like Holbrook from getting too high or too low. Just as things appear to get better, they can go the other way with a difficult weekend at the plate, on the mound or in the field.
South Carolina’s consistency over the past three seasons no doubt gives this team the blueprint for managing expectations while striving for the top of the conference standings and an NCAA home regional. The Gamecocks know they have the pitching to keep them in any series, with the results hinging on whether they can do a better job of swinging the bats while making most of their plays defensively.
That’s going to determine if they can stay on the good side of any more sweeps.
Tuesday's game: Gamecocks vs. Bulldogs
WHO: USC (26-7) vs. The Citadel (17-16)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Carolina Stadium
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5
SERIES: USC leads 124-47-1
LAST MEETING: USC beat The Citadel, 9-5, on March 19
RANKINGS: USC is No. 11 in Baseball America
PITCHING MATCHUPS: USC RHP Joel Seddon, Soph., 1-0, 5.11 ERA vs. The Citadel RHP Austin Livingston, Fr., 2-0, 6.48 ERA
NOTES: USC RHP Colby Holmes became the 21st pitcher in school history to record 20 or more career wins with Sunday’s victory over Tennessee. The Citadel is led by the .383 BA of OF Hughston Armstrong, a former Ridge View standout. Starting with the last time they played USC, the Bulldogs have lost nine of 12 games. South Carolina is 23-0 this season when leading after six innings and 18-0 when out-hitting the opponent. The USC pitching staff has 293 strikeouts in 295 innings.