After losing its first series of the season to Kentucky over the weekend, the South Carolina baseball team confirmed what everyone knows.
The SEC is a tough place to play.
The Gamecocks, who slipped one spot to No. 2 in this week’s Baseball America Top 25, fell to 3-3 in the conference, which places them in a five-way tie for first place in the SEC East after the first two weekends of league play.
The contrast is clear with the first 16 non-conference games, when the Gamecocks rolled unbeaten.
Of the seven teams they faced in going 16-0 – Bucknell, Presbyterian, Eastern Kentucky, Clemson, Stetson, Brown and Furman – only No. 20 Clemson has a winning record. Those seven are a combined 63-84. The Gamecocks outscored them 119-20 while posting a .316 batting average and a 1.12 ERA.
In the two SEC series, No. 13 Mississippi and No. 19 Kentucky have a combined record of 38-11. The Gamecocks have compiled a .273 batting average and 3.91 ERA in those six games, when they’ve been outscored 29-26.
While disappointed his team dropped the first two games of the Kentucky series, USC coach Chad Holbrook liked Sunday’s bounce-back win to avoid the sweep. After winning a pair of close games against Ole Miss to claim the conference-opening series, he understands the next eight league series will be more of the same.
“That’s the way it’s going to be each and every weekend,” Holbrook said. “There aren’t going to be any weekends in the remaining part of our schedule where we’re going to dominate our opponent. Each game is going to be nip-and-tuck. You play in this league, and you’re going to take your fair share of losses.”
The Gamecocks have had slow starts in SEC play recently – 2-4 last season and 1-5 in 2012 – but they rebounded to finish well over .500 in both cases – 17-12 last season and 18-11 in 2012. Holbrook is convinced this team also has the capability to reel off a string of wins in conference play.
“We can go on a streak and play really good baseball when it matters most,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet. I’m hopeful that’s around the corner.”
If that’s going to happen, junior left-hander Jordan Montgomery, the Friday night starter, must return to form. In 17 1/3 innings against Bucknell, Eastern Kentucky and Brown, he gave up no earned runs. In 13 1/3 innings against Clemson, Ole Miss and Kentucky, he has allowed 17 earned runs.
“We don’t have a great, great season without him pitching extremely well as we go down the back half of our season,” Holbrook said. “He’s lost a little bit of the command of his changeup, and he needs to get that back. Once he starts pitching off his changeup again, he’ll be back to normal. That’s what made him so effective in the past.”
The Gamecocks also must get healthy. Sophomore second baseman Max Schrock has been in and out of the lineup since March 5 with a sprained ankle. Holbrook doesn’t expect to play him in the two mid-week games to rest the ankle in advance of the weekend series. Even then, it’s likely he will be the designated hitter because playing second base adds to the stress on the ankle.
“We need Max’s bat in the lineup, and, hopefully, we can get that starting this weekend. And, over time, as his ankle gets better, we can get him back in there playing defense,” Holbrook said.
In the meantime, the Gamecocks have a difficult week ahead with mid-week games against College of Charleston, which defeated North Carolina in a series to start the season, and Coastal Carolina. The SEC opponent, No. 22 Tennessee (19-4), also comes to Carolina Stadium.
“We’ll be challenged. It’s five very difficult games ahead of us,” Holbrook said. “Luckily, we get to play them at home. Our guys are ready to play, and, hopefully, they’ll use the momentum of Sunday’s game to play very well.”