Any lingering doubts as to whether South Carolina is playing its best baseball at the close of the regular season were erased Friday night at Carolina Stadium.
For the second consecutive game, USC used a strong starting pitching performance and a healthy dose of power ball to defeat Georgia 7-4 and clinch at least a tie for second place in the SEC East Division. The Gamecocks own the fifth seed in the SEC tournament, which starts Wednesday in Hoover, Ala.
USC improved to 36-19 overall and 16-13 in the conference. Georgia fell to 35-19 and 15-14.
Freshman left-hander Nolan Belcher (4-3) threw the best game of his young career, tiring out after 6 Ð innings and 111 pitches. Before he departed to a rousing ovation, Belcher allowed Georgia an unearned run on three hits, walked three and struck out a season-high 11.
“He was awesome,” catcher Justin Dalles said of Belcher. “Following the performance by (Sam) Dyson (on Thursday), I just put up my glove and he hit the spots.”
Belcher got all the support he needed via home runs by Nick Ebert and Dalles. Ebert hit a two-run homer in the second inning and Dalles added a three-run homer in the third.
“Another day, another home run, another win,” Ebert said of hitting his 21st home run of the season.
USC has won nine of its past 10 games, a season-ending flurry not produced by the Gamecocks since the last time Ray Tanner’s club reached the College World Series. Over the previous four seasons, USC has pretty much limped into the postseason.
The 2005 club closed the regular season with a 9-14 record. The following year, USC went 6-12 down the stretch, then 10-8 in 2007 and 5-8 in 2008. One must go back to 2004 to find a season in which USC was playing at a peak level heading to the SEC tournament.
That 2004 team won the SEC tournament, the Columbia Regional and defeated East Carolina in the Super Regionals en route to Omaha.
That’s not to say this club is primed for another run to Omaha. But if it continues to get strong outings out of its starters and big swings out of its power hitters, who knows.
“We needed to win. We needed to win down the stretch,” Tanner said. “That was no secret. We were under the gun. After the Florida weekend, it was play well or you don’t get to play at the end. It was real simple, and these guys responded.”
Birdseed. Starting pitchers in today’s 1 p.m. series finale are a pair of right-handers, Blake Cooper (7-4, 4.74 ERA) for USC and Justin Grimm (2-3,4.36) for Georgia. ... USC’s seven seniors were recognized before the game. They included Jesse Barbaro, Jordan Costner, Craig Thomas, Jay Brown, Alex Farotto, Curtis Johnson and Andrew Crisp. ... DeAngelo Mack extended his hitting streak to 16 games, although for the second consecutive night it was the result of blind luck over hitting prowess. On Thursday, a generous scoring decision gave him an infield single for his only hit. On Friday, Georgia centerfielder Matt Cerlone never saw Mack’s fly ball and it dropped for a triple. Mack later lined a single to center.