STANDING ON THE Carolina Stadium field after Sunday's 19-6 loss to Clemson, USC baseball coach Ray Tanner understood there might be some people wondering just how good his team is.
The Gamecocks entered the season ranked No. 10 by Baseball America, but after dropping consecutive weekend series to East Carolina and Clemson, losing two of three to each, they are 6-4 and ranked 19th.
"It's OK to question if we're good enough right now," Tanner said.
He realizes his team hasn't played to expectations - both his and those of the fans and media. But he's also aware his team is one-sixth into the season. There will be plenty of chances to show it can compete with the best teams once SEC play begins.
"We've got to prove it between the lines," he said.
While a 13-run loss to Clemson might be painful for USC fans, it is one game and essentially no different than Friday's 4-3 loss to the Tigers.
Bad games in baseball mean far less than they do in football, which plays once a week. Last April, the New York Yankees lost 22-4 to Cleveland. Think anybody was worried much about that one at season's end?
Players understand games like that are an anomaly.
"We're only 10 games in. We've got a long season," USC's Jackie Bradley said. "We have to put that in the past and move on now."
Whit Merrifield pointed to a pair of 4-3 losses - one to ECU and one to Clemson - as games that easily could have ended up in the win column for the Gamecocks. But the relief pitchers could not close the door.
"A pitch here and a pitch there, and we win both those series," Merrifield said.
Then he addressed one of the best things about baseball: Teams get to play again shortly after a bad loss and can erase the bad memories.
"We're going to come back and work hard this week," he said.
It helps that the five games this week come against Northern programs Valparaiso (3-9) and Brown (1-3), which was routed by LSU in three games this past weekend.
The Gamecocks have taken care of business against teams they should beat, going 4-0 against Duquesne and Presbyterian. And to be fair, the 2-4 mark that has some worried came against a Clemson team (9-1) that is now ranked 12th and an ECU team (7-3) that is No. 13. Five of those six games were on the road or at a neutral site.
With the opening SEC series against Tennessee 10 days away, USC has an opportunity to get back on track. The pitching, led by the top two starters, Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson, had looked solid until Sunday's pounding, when the team ERA jumped from 3.09 to 4.41.
That leaves Tanner is search of a Sunday starter, especially after Tyler Webb and Steven Neff struggled against Clemson. There are many candidates, including sophomore left-hander Nolan Belcher if he continues to throw well. He has the necessary experience after spending much of his freshman season as a weekend starter.
The hitting also must get better. Bradley, Merrifield and senior catcher Kyle Enders have done their part, and Scott Wingo also has stepped up at the plate. But Christian Walker and Jeffery Jones haven't contributed much since posting huge opening weekends against Duquesne. The maturation of Walker, a freshman, will be especially important to the team's fortunes.
In the seven games since his return from academic issues, Nick Ebert has yet to find his stroke. After hitting 23 homers last season, he has not gone deep to date, although he did line a two-run triple off the wall against Clemson. Tanner thought about taking Ebert out of the lineup Sunday, but he stuck with him based on his success of a year ago. If Ebert and outfielder Adam Matthews can start to hit consistently, this lineup gets a whole lot better in a hurry.
Tanner has plenty of choices defensively, especially given the versatility of Merrifield, Robert Beary and Wingo, which will allow him to go with the lineup that offers the best offensive attack. And Sunday's loss aside, Tanner has options on the pitching staff. Now it's a matter of figuring out the pitchers' roles and hoping they can find consistency, whether as a starter or a reliever.
Tanner admits he isn't happy with some of what he has seen, especially since his expectations exceed anybody else's. More importantly, he knows better than anyone that there are 46 games remaining in the regular season to meet them.