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Gamecocks are on fire

Three weekends ago, the South Carolina baseball team was in a sluggish state. It had just been swept in a three-game series at Georgia, and the Internet and sports-talk radio were filled with grumbling.

Georgia coach David Perno apparently knew better, and said so to USC coach Ray Tanner after the series. The three games had been close, and, according to Tanner, Perno said to him that if the games had been in Columbia, “You might’ve won all three.”

Tanner took a similar tone with his players. Since then, hardly a thing has gone wrong for the Gamecocks.

South Carolina has won 10 of its past 11 games and enters this weekend’s series at LSU in prime position to serve as a host site for a regional and a super regional in the NCAA tournament.

While the Gamecocks are ranked 12th by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, their resume and their position in the SEC and the Ratings Percentage Index have them poised for bigger things. If the postseason began today, Baseball America and rivals.com have USC as the No. 7 national seed.

“They’re going to have to play their way out of that, in my mind,” said John Manuel, the editor in chief of Baseball America. “They control their own destiny in terms of being a national seed and playing at home.”

So how did the Gamecocks recover from the Georgia series? As Tanner points out, it’s not a matter of getting back up, but getting better results while continuing to play well.

HITTING

No one is surprised to see USC near the top of the league in most hitting categories or ranked third in the nation with 77 homers. The Gamecocks also lead the SEC in walks.

What the Gamecocks are doing well is spreading around the offense. A different player leads the team in home runs (Justin Smoak, 16), RBIs (James Darnell, 56) and batting average (Reese Havens, .394). Phil Disher and the improving Whit Merrifield round out the top five in the order.

The bottom four remain the offense’s question mark. Andrew Crisp’s return from injury should help. The Gamecocks could also use more production from catcher Kyle Enders (.261, five homers) and Harley Lail (.264, 11 doubles).

PITCHING

The Gamecocks rank third in the SEC in earned run average (3.61) and first in opponents’ batting average (.245) and runs allowed (171). But the best indicator of the pitching staff’s success might be that its weekend rotation has stayed intact throughout the SEC schedule: right-hander Mike Cisco on Friday, lefty Will Atwood on Saturday and right-hander Blake Cooper on Sunday.

The trio has been so good that the team’s best statistical starter, Nick Godwin (4-2, 2.20 ERA) has been relegated to mid-week games. The bullpen has endured the loss of closer Curtis Johnson, who was lost for the season in mid-March.

Perhaps the staff was underrated, but Manuel points to another factor — fielding.

The Gamecocks have the fewest errors in the SEC and lead the league with a .978 fielding percentage. Third baseman Darnell and shortstop Havens have made a big improvement with their gloves.

“Their pitching is a contact-oriented pitching staff. It’s not a blow-you-away pitching staff,” Manuel said. “But you have to give them credit because they play great defense. The left half of their defense has really improved.”

SCHEDULE

The NCAA’s new rule pushing the start of the season back forced more midweek games.

The Gamecocks are 20-4 in nonconference games, including a four-game sweep of Clemson. That’s a big reason they rank fifth in the RPI, which the NCAA committee uses when picking the postseason field.

“We survived it pretty well,” Tanner said. “There’s a lot of other teams around the country who only have 24, 25 wins right now because they haven’t been able to handle midweek as well.”

The remaining 13 games include one nonconference opponent, Wofford. The Gamecocks have four SEC series remaining and expect to be favored in all of them.

“When I look at South Carolina, there’s not an obvious weakness on a team that’s 31-11,” Manuel said.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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