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Answers still to come for USC

The USC baseball team huddles as the starters prepare to head to the field during opening day against Duquesne at Carolina Stadium, Friday, February 19, 2010.
The USC baseball team huddles as the starters prepare to head to the field during opening day against Duquesne at Carolina Stadium, Friday, February 19, 2010.

The South Carolina baseball team did what it was supposed to do over the weekend:

Three up in the form of Atlantic 10 foe Duquesne, three down in the win column for the Gamecocks.

Of course, in college baseball, where one good pitcher can serve as the equalizer for a lesser team, a sweep can't be taken for granted, even though the Gamecocks never have lost to the Dukes in 22 meetings over a 15-year period.

So what did we learn?

First, the starting pitching looked solid, with Blake Cooper, Sam Dyson and Tyler Webb getting the job done in abbreviated opening stints. And the bullpen appears deep, with USC coach Ray Tanner using 12 relievers over the weekend. The staff had a 3.00 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 27 innings.

Second, the absence of Nick Ebert due to academic problems will not be so pronounced if Jeffery Jones can produce. With three home runs and 10 RBIs in the series, Jones provided a lot of much-needed pop in the middle of the order.

Third, freshman third baseman Christian Walker might be as good of a hitter as Tanner advertised in the preseason. Batting third in the order, Walker delivered an 8-for-14 performance with two home runs and seven RBIs while stroking the ball to all fields.

Fourth, the defense played well, even with Tanner shifting personnel all over the field in order to get a look at as many players as possible. The Gamecocks made one error in the series.

USC maintained its No. 10 national ranking in the Baseball America Top 25 poll, but much truer tests are coming the next two weekends. The Gamecocks take on No. 22 East Carolina on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and No. 15 Clemson from March 5-7, with five of those six games on the road. We'll learn far more about this team after those two series.

East Carolina began its season with two losses in three games to Virginia, which moved to No. 1 in Baseball America this week, in the biggest opening series nationally. The Gamecocks know all about playing in Clark-LeClair Stadium against the Pirates, who knocked USC out of the NCAA tournament by winning two of three in the Greenville Regional last season.

Clemson, meanwhile, opened its season with victories against Miami of Ohio, Michigan State and Furman. This season features a new format between the Gamecocks and Tigers, with one three-game weekend set before conference play starts. That will allow both teams to use their top pitchers. Both teams will get one home game, with the third to be played at a neutral site - Greenville's Fluor Field, home to the Single-A Greenville Drive.

If the Gamecocks can survive this stretch by winning either or both series - especially if Ebert and outfielder Jackie Bradley still aren't back in the lineup - then they'll be more than deserving of their ranking and ready for the start of SEC play in mid-March.

Junior outfielder Whit Merrifield is capable of leading the team during that stretch. By picking up hits in all three games, he extended his hitting streak to 17 games dating to last season. Newcomer Robert Beary, who had three hits Saturday, and sophomore Adam Matthews, who had a big home run Sunday, also need to step up.

Those games also should help Tanner sort out the roles on the pitching staff. With so many arms to chose from, the battle for mid-week starting spots, middle-relief roles and the closer's job are up for grabs. Junior-college transfer John Taylor struggled Sunday in his first opportunity to finish a game when he gave up three ninth-inning runs in a 5-3 win. But Nolan Belcher, Steven Neff, Michael Roth and Jose Mata looked sharp in relief appearances.

The lack of relief pitching cost USC in the regional championship game against ECU last year, when a 6-0 lead turned into a 10-9, extra-inning loss, with three of the Pirates' runs coming in the ninth and one in the tenth. Erasing that memory would provide the Gamecocks a confidence boost and give them momentum heading into the Clemson series.

Outscoring Duquesne 28-9 provided a little of both, but the real answers to questions about this team will begin to be revealed over the next two weeks.

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