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Morris: Starting pitching sets up well for USC's title hopes

RALEIGH

NO DOUBT, SOUTH Carolina is not in the most ideal situation in the Raleigh Regional. But the Gamecocks are not facing dire straits, either. There exists some sunshine in the dark clouds.

If any team is prepared to work its way out of the losers’ bracket of a double-elimination tournament, it is USC. Part of building depth on this pitching staff was forced upon Ray Tanner and pitching coach Mark Calvi. The remainder was the result of a bold, late-season shift in the starting rotation.

Following a 5-4 loss to North Carolina State on Saturday evening at Doak Field, USC needs a pair of wins today and another on Monday to reach the super regionals.

“It ain’t going to be easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy when you get into the losers’ bracket,” Tanner said. “Stranger things have happened, and we’re going to go out (today) and do our best to try to play 18 innings.

“If you can get past that first game, you’re going to play with adrenaline in the nightcap. These guys are young. They can be tired next week sometime. Obviously, N.C. State’s in the driver’s seat, and they deserve to be. But we’re going to come out (today) and try to keep it going.”

There cannot be many teams in the country facing elimination with a pair of healthy and fresh arms that once anchored the Saturday and Sunday spots in conference play. Yet USC has just that.

Right-hander Blake Cooper will start against James Madison this afternoon. Should USC win, lefty Will Atwood will go in the nightcap against N.C. State.

Cooper and Atwood are tied for third on the club in wins with five apiece. Cooper made 14 starts and Atwood 11. Although Cooper carries a 4.22 ERA and Atwood’s sits at 5.47, the two were as steady this season as any USC starter.

“We’re deep enough that with our offense, if we can get extended (in the tournament), we can make it interesting,” Tanner said.

Tanner and Calvi can thank the new uniform start date for college baseball in helping USC develop a stable of arms, unlike Gamecocks’ teams in recent years. Normally, by tournament time, USC has trimmed its staff to four or five pitchers.

By often playing five games each week instead of four, USC went to a five-man pitching rotation. That meant lengthening the bullpen as well. Instead of entering the postseason with three reliable starters and a couple of relievers, USC headed to this regional with five starters and five relievers who garnered significant innings during the regular season.

Late in the season, USC also shifted midweek starters Sam Dyson and Nick Godwin to the top of the rotation. Dyson picked up the win in the tournament opener against Charlotte, and Godwin pitched effectively Saturday but did not figure in the decision against N.C. State.

So, Cooper and Atwood give USC a solid one-two punch coming out of the losers bracket. It is difficult to believe either James Madison or N.C. State can match that kind of firepower this deep into the tournament.

On top of that, USC has not used Alex Farotto, Parker Bangs or Sean Wideberg out of the bullpen. Tanner said USC will do its best today to avoid using Mike Cisco in relief with an eye on starting him in Monday’s title game.

“It’s going to be very difficult for sure. But, we’ve got guys,” Tanner said. “If we can have a good day tomorrow, then I can probably bring Cisco back as a starter. So, a lot of things can happen.”

Cisco lost his regular Friday starting assignment late in the season but has pitched effectively out of the bullpen since. In four games covering 5ð innings, Cisco has not allowed an earned run. He went 2Ð innings in Friday’s opener and threw 27 pitches.

During a late-season slide that saw USC lose 10 of 17 games, Tanner’s club had three areas of concern. The Gamecocks have shored up their batting order by inserting DeAngelo Mack and Parker Bangs. Moving Dyson and Godwin up in the rotation solidified the starting pitching.

With Cisco unlikely to pitch today in relief, USC still has not solved its bullpen problems. Therein lies the counter argument to any thinking that USC’s pitching is positioned to fight its way out of the losers bracket and to the regional title.

Yes, USC has the starting pitching to do it. Unfortunately, those starters might have to string together three consecutive complete games.

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